Joyful sounds of laughter and conversation fill the warm basement of June Fraser Thistle's country home on a chilly Saturday afternoon in Bellingham. Stuffing, socks, thread, and fabric pieces are all scattered along a large pool table and piled in various corners of the room.
It is a scene akin to Santa’s workshop as a dozen women chatter away and piece together various items that make up the small stuffed sock monkeys they are building. The animals are more than just a pastime for these ladies, as their mission is to provide children in protective services or transitional homes with small tokens of comfort in the form of custom handmade sock monkeys.
Operation Sock Monkey is a national volunteer-run initiative, which contributes to communities in need. Chapters around the U.S craft sock monkeys in order to provide smiles to children and their families.
Fraser Thistle, an office manager in residence life at Western, is the founder of the city’s chapter of the project, which started back in April of 2013. She is a longtime Bellingham resident who emigrated from Canada in 2002 and began working for Western in 2003. Fraser Thistle invites volunteers from all over Bellingham via Facebook events into her own home where she hosts the sewing and crafting parties.
The monkeys have previously been distributed to Whatcom County Child Protection Services, located on Ellis Street in Bellingham. Fraser Thistle recently connected with Skookum Kids, an emergency home for families and children transitioning through crisis situations, she said. Skookum is a brand new facility as of last fall and only one of two in Washington State that provides safe housing and care for up to 72 hours for those in need, Fraser Thistle said. This new addition brought Fraser Thistle to network on Facebook and through word of mouth out to Bellingham and beyond in order to help supply the larger output needed.
Her focus roots from the idea of the “human aspect” of sustainability, which is about the importance of building a supportive community. It is not always the first thing that comes to mind when considering the term sustainable.
“Everybody looks at sustainability and they think of the environment and objects that you want to recycle and reuse,” Fraser Thistle said. “But we have to remember about people, keeping people healthy, keeping them happy and I can’t think of a better way to do that than to look at our little kids that are in the most incredible need,” Fraser Thistle said.
It began with a small group of employees at Western whose interests were mainly in knitting clothing items. Phi Kappa Phi, Western’s collegiate honor society chapter, planned a workshop in February 2014 around the idea of building sock monkeys for displaced children. Fraser Thistle’s group made 43 monkeys and gave them to Child Protective Services in summer 2014.
During that drop off, Fraser Thistle remembers hearing a toddler-aged girl crying while on a required visit with her mother in the office. They sent back a monkey to the cubicle she was in and instantly the crying stopped.
“That was another pivotal point for me to get hooked on this,” Fraser Thistle said.
Her passion for helping children as well as building a close-knit community around the project is evident from those in the core group who work with Fraser Thistle.
Kim Cunningham was a part of the original group of Western employees that got together during the lunch hour to socialize and knit.
She is an experienced knitter and pulled from old scraps in her stash to contribute toward all sorts of miniature clothing items for the monkeys, such as tiny satchels made from Pendleton shirt pockets.
“It’s funny how the monkeys start to look like yourself because you’re using all of your scraps and all of your things,” Cunningham said. “Mine were like the Bellingham dudes; they had brown, gray, plaid and that kind of thing.”
Carol Berry, the campus conservation and sustainable transportation program manager here at Western, is a member of the group as well and emphasized the idea of craftivism as a driving force. Crafter and activist Betsy Greer, who Berry praised as an inspiration for the project, originally coined the term. Her focus is on the power of social change by creating works that add to the greater good and build a better community.
“Activism and advocacy take a lot of different forms. Some of it is an active ‘in-your-face’ protest…not everybody feels comfortable with that method, and not every situation can be solved through those methods,” Berry said.
This project provides the opportunity for individuals of all ages and walks of life to participate in something that is both skill building as well as benefiting children in need at a crucial point in their lives.
“Making something and giving it for a good cause, is very powerful for the maker and giver, as well as for the recipient,” Berry said. “That’s what’s embodied in this sock monkey project, which I love.”
Student involvement and awareness is a growing part of the project as well. Fareeha Nasir is a senior at Western and an early childhood education major. Nasir met Fraser Thistle her sophomore year when she became a resident adviser in Mathes Hall, and grew close to her from spending free time in her office. Nasir has since moved into Fraser Thistle’s home this past fall. Living in close quarters has given Nasir an inside look as to how hard she works, because although the big workshop parties only happen about once a year it is a continuous project year-round for Fraser Thistle. Nasir’s motives root from her future in the career of working with young children.
“Since I’m training to be a teacher, [my favorite part] is definitely the joy that I hear about the kids,” Nasir said.
She noted a story Fraser Thistle told about the reaction of a little girl who received a monkey and was ecstatic to have something of her own to love and take care of, a crucial point the group wants to address for these children who do not have stable family support.
As this project rolls into the new year, Fraser Thistle has big plans for the organization. She is looking into nonprofit status and hopes to obtain a grant in the future to fund a larger output and serve the greater community. This opportunity would allow anyone who donates to get a tax write-off for his or her contributions. The financial aid this project requires is immense as the community of children they serve grows, so she is pushing for not only help with the labor but also supplies.
Fraser Thistle also wants to encourage a larger visibility of the project on campus to get more people involved. She mentioned the volunteer and internship opportunities at Skookum Kids for students who want to work in the social services field or simply share a passion for helping those in need in the community.
She hopes to continue building a larger network in the community as she gets the ball rolling with Skookum.
“They are only open part-time now and so it’s between six and eight children a weekend they service,” Fraser Thistle said. “When it gets to be 20 or 30 kids a week which is what they could actually get by the time they are open full-time, that’s when I want to be nonprofit, full swing, workshops happening at least once a month.”
For anyone who is interested in being involved in any part of the process of helping Fraser Thistle and her passionate group of monkey makers, she encourages those to connect with her on the Bellingham Sock Monkey Project Facebook page. She is currently seeking out a volunteer who could put together a fully operational website for the project as well, specifically Western students who are technologically savvy. Other plans include renting out the conference room in Edens Hall during the lunch hour once a week for those on campus who want to come see what the monkey business is all about.