Franklin citizen knits 100 scarves to shield the homeless from winter’s bite

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Donna Willoughby

Donna Willoughby, right, and her daughter, Erin Kersey, will pack hand-knit scarves into “blessing bags” to distribute to vendors of The Contributor newspaper in the area. 

Residents of Middle Tennessee are hardly thinking about winter in the midst of upper-90s heat, but Franklin’s Donna Willoughby has been anticipating the coming chill for some time now. 

Willoughby, with her husband Andy, runs Handy Hardware in Franklin, and a couple years ago, she and her family started a new Christmas tradition: instead of exchanging gifts with one another, they have been focusing on those in need. 

Her hands have been hard at work these days, as this year, she has knit 100 scarves to give to vendors of The Contributor newspaper around Williamson and Davidson counties. Though she remarked that giving is important all year round, “the holiday season is where you take care of others.” 

This year in particular, she believes her warm accessories will be especially needed. 

“This year, all the signs are pointing towards a very cold winter,” she said. “The wooly worms are all black. The bark on the trees is thick. The persimmons are showing a spoon symbol, which means lots of snow.” 

In winters past, Willoughby has given her scarves to her neighbor, who plays music at the Nashville Rescue Mission, to hand out to those in need. While she is continuing this in the coming chilly season, already having knit 20 to 30 scarves for this cause, she decided to broaden her scope. 

She said her family always buys The Contributor every time they see a vendor on the side of the road. As the former managing editor of the Williamson Herald, she said she has a kind of kinship with these people. 

“I have an affinity for those people because they’re in the newspaper business, just like I was,” Willoughby said. “And the thing is, they may be homeless, but they’re working. They’re giving themselves their own hand up. … You’ve got to give them credit for being out there in the 97 degrees and the 2 degrees.” 

Co-founder of The Contributor Tom Wills said supplying vendors with the necessary materials to make it through the extremes can contribute to the sellers’ success. 

“We’re so appreciative of (Willoughby), and we want our vendors to be able to go out there and sell in style and be properly equipped for the weather they will endure,” he said. “If (vendors) look good while they’re selling, that’s great, because no one wants to invest their hard-earned money into a vendor who is not investing in themselves, so you want to see your vendors out there looking like the professionals that they are.” 

Wills explained that prospective vendors, who have experienced or are experiencing homelessness or poverty, go through business training before they start selling papers. They are then able to buy each copy for 50 cents and sell for two dollars apiece. 

While he said gifts and donations are usually welcomed by vendors, he encouraged such donors to always buy a paper and treat them like business professionals. 

“If you want to tip the vendor, great, but always take the paper because the content is great, and … every time that the vendor sells out of newspapers, they’re encouraged to go back and buy more to grow their business,” Wills said. “Sometimes people will … say, ‘Oh, just keep the paper. Sell it to somebody else.’ That’s treating them like a panhandler.” 

He added the only way vendors can provide proof of income is by showing their invoice records of how many papers they’ve sold, so taking the papers helps them out when they’re looking for housing. 

Willoughby said she and her daughter, Erin Kersey, usually have snacks and bottled water in their cars to hand out to the vendors when they stop to pick up a copy of the paper. Kersey explained she likes to give out these extra goodies to address immediate needs. 

“What if it was me? How would I like people to treat me?” Kersey said. “Sometimes money is great, but at other times you just really need a bag of Cheez-Its.” 

When creating scarves, Willoughby always uses yarn from the company Darn Good Yarn, which sources materials from supply chains that benefit disadvantaged populations and seeks to provide jobs for marginalized or underserved people. Darn Good Yarn is currently holding a competition for fall yarn projects, providing the highest-voted competitor with $500 worth of yarn. 

Willoughby has entered this competition, hoping to win yarn to go towards her next holiday giveaway. 

“It will happen next year whether I win or not, but it would be sure helpful to have $500 of yarn to start,” she said. 

When the company caught wind of her project, they sent her 100 reusable bags so she could fill them with not only her scarves, but also other materials to fill the needs of those men and women working to sell The Contributor. 

She and her family are preparing to fill these “blessing bags,” as they called them, with hand warmers, socks donated by NEBO, Cheez-Its, hand cream, lip balm and, of course, hand-knitted scarves. She hopes to have these bags ready to distribute before the National Day of Giving on Dec. 3. 

“You may or may not choose to be homeless, but you’re choosing to work to make yourself better,” Willoughby said. “You may be homeless, but you don’t need to be cold.” 

To vote for Willoughby’s project in the Darn Good Yarn project, visit The competition concludes Oct. 20.

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