Alumna, W&L Knitters Comfort Nairobi Kids

Nela Bratu's doll, which she knit while visiting Lexington for daughter Cristina's graduation.

The 350-doll result of the W&L group's work.

Paige Smith, a member of Washington and Lee’s Class of 2006, is spending the summer in Nairobi, Kenya, working with impoverished children. In her luggage are handmade gifts for the kids from a Lexington organization that includes many W&L employees, and from the mother of a new graduate.

Paige made her first visit to Africa last year with a group from her Hollywood, Calif., church. In Nairobi, they work with local organizations that care for impoverished residents of the Kibera slum. As she wrote to Cathy McElhannon, administrative assistant in the W&L Department of Theater and Dance, “The main focus of these organizations is to care for orphans, teens and widows affected by poverty and AIDS, by providing everything from meals to schooling to developing sustainable businesses.” Paige writes about her work and travel on her blog, which you can read here.

Cathy had contributed to Paige’s 2010 trip and wanted to help again this year. Having learned of comfort dolls, small, hand-knit toys that donors make and send to children around the world, Cathy asked Paige if her group would like to take some along to Nairobi. “The response was an enthusiastic yes,” Cathy tells us, “and she said they would need 350 by the first of July.”

That was in May. So Cathy swiftly enlisted her fellow members of WiNKS (the Wednesday Night Knitting Society), which includes about 12 W&L employees and alumna Liz O’Byrne, a member of the Class of 2000 who lives in the area. “With each doll taking three to four hours to complete,” reports Cathy, “our needles started clicking furiously in May. On June 22, we reached our goal of 350 dolls.”

But wait—there was one more contributor. At the end of May, Cathy had as houseguests Nela and Alex Bratu, the parents of Cristina Bratu, who were visiting from Romania to celebrate Cristina’s graduation from W&L. (Her sister Becky is a 2009 graduate.) “They couldn’t help but notice the 200-plus comfort dolls lined up on the fireplace hearth,” says Cathy. Nela Bratu, a schoolteacher, had Alex Bratu translate a pattern from English into Romanian, and she knit a doll before she left. “It is her hope that she will be able to teach her students to knit,” reports Cathy, “so they can make comfort dolls for the many children who live in orphanages in Romania.”

When Becky Bratu arrived for the festivities and heard about the project, she added to the story one more detail: she and Paige Smith, the impetus for the whole thing, had been good friends when they were students.



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