Close-knit women's group supports a strong sense of belonging in Brantford

The women of Stitch 'N Chat gather to celebrate the holidays at Grand River Community Health Centre in Brantford. (Photo: Oleksandra Budna/AOHC)

By Jason Rehel, story producer and editor, AOHC

In the first week of December, the Patients First Act became law in Ontario. In the Act, “the promotion of health equity and development and implementation of health promotion strategies” is added to the mandate of Ontario’s 14 Local Health Integration Networks. To better imagine what this mandate could look like in action in primary health care, we’re bringing you stories from AOHC member centres across the province. Here we highlight a women’s group in Brantford that cultivates a sense of belonging among everyone who joins, and hear directly from the women themselves about why their program matters so much.

A few weeks ahead of Christmas in 2010, a group of women gathered for the first time, to share tea, knitting and sewing tips, and a bit of conversation. Six years later, the group is still going strong. Its official name has evolved to Stitch ’N Chat, but the purpose of the weekly gatherings is still the same: to welcome women from the community to a safe space for creating things and making friendships.

“We found that many people who were being seen on the primary care side, perhaps for counselling because they were a bit sad or dealing with some depression, when we peeled away the layers, it was social isolation that was at the root of many cases,” says Gloria Ord, Community Health and Wellness worker at Grand River Community Health Centre (GRCHC) in downtown Brantford.

Ord helps facilitate the group, which includes about 20 women ranging in age from 30 to 93. She helps plan the small budgets that the group has for knitting, sewing, card-making and other crafting projects. Led by Shirley, a volunteer at GRCHC, the group also runs and stocks a small gift shop at the centre, where Stitch ’N Chat members’ unique creations find homes in the community. And yes, business has been brisk the last few weeks. (But no, they don’t have any homemade Minions left!)

Referrals to the social group are made through physicians, counsellors and others on the primary care side of the Community Health Centre, Ord says. Other mental health organizations in the Brantford area have also referred people in their care directly to Stitch ’N Chat. Often the women in the group themselves, vocal advocates for their weekly meet-ups, will draw in people they’ve identified as needing a friend, sometimes after learning about the loss of a spouse or a battle with illness.

Gloria Ord holds one of the Stitch 'N Chat group's creations in the volunteer-run gift shop at Grand River CHC. (All photos: Oleksandra Budna/AOHC)

Ord says she’s most proud that Stitch ’N Chat sustains itself, even when she’s not there. When she goes on summer vacation, projects are still planned, tea is poured, and the chatting continues. She’s a member of the group, and provides guidance, but Ord says the group leads itself, with the women taking strong roles in welcoming others, developing new craft projects, planning events, and helping each other.

To honour that strong sense of belonging, we spoke with several of the women of GRCHC’s Stitch ’N Chat group at their annual Christmas gathering this week. Below, you’ll find some of their reflections on why the program matters so much to them, their sense of wellbeing, and their health overall.

Mary: This program is not so much about stitching, it’s about being with other people. It’s about giving us an opportunity to get out of our closed tight circles and expand. When you’re going through health challenges, it’s harder to participate in things in the community, but this program makes sure we have that chance, and that we can come out of our shell. With the gift store, it’s also a chance to feel like we’re contributing back to the community, too.

Chatting never takes a back seat to knitting or sewing at Stitch 'N Chat, members of the weekly women's group say. Friendship and supporting each other is the main purpose, they add.

Donna: I just started coming in November. My husband died in March, so I’ve been trying to find ways to get out and get involved again. I had been my husband’s care-giver for 10 years. That made me kind of feel that I was distanced from everything. But I had been knitting all along anyway, and I had made a whole bunch of hats for charity, and they needed a home! And that’s when I came across this group. Gloria was looking for someone to teach sewing, and I had worked as a sewing teacher. So it all kind of happened at the perfect time for me. It’s just great being with everyone.

Gerry: I came in because of depression. I met Gloria and she made me feel so comfortable. People here tell me I’ve bloomed and blossomed since then. I get a lot out of this program because I’ve met real friends. They’re not just acquaintances. Our group is close-knit, but we invite people in and help them to feel comfortable. That’s the way we are.

Shirley: I started coming with my sister who was handicapped and looking for an excuse to get out of the house. That was about three years ago, and although she died, I’ve kept coming. Now I’m running the gift shop and so I’m here about four hours a day, and I make a lot of greeting cards. Since the middle of November, I think I’ve made about 200 cards.

Gerry: And she also shares her knowledge with us and teaches us to make our own cards!

Leslie: I joined the program after I was put off work because of my hip. My doctor’s office is at GRCHC, and I said to her, “You know, I think I’m a little down. I’m always at home and I’m not really doing anything.” So she sent me to Gloria. When I told her about my situation, she suggested that I join this group. I was shy at the beginning like Gerry, but everybody here gets along, accepts you for who you are, there’s no judgment whatsoever. I feel as if this group has been a real life-saver for me, and I feel really lucky.

For Margaret, who's 86, getting the opportunity to meet someone around her own age (Florence, 93) has made a real difference, and they now support each other outside the centre.

Margaret: Someone from the public library suggested this group to me, and ever since the first day, everyone’s just been so friendly, and so kind. It’s a great group of women, and I think it’s because they feel for people. I’ve only been in Brantford for three years, and the program has given me a chance to meet someone in my own age group. I’m 86. Florence, who’s 93, we’ve figured out that we have a lot in common.

Florence: I’m the oldest one here. And I look forward to every Thursday. That’s the only day I get out. I’m going into a retirement home soon, so that will be a bit of a change for me, but I took Margaret there yesterday and we had a meal, and it was nice. I’ve also been able to contribute to the group – I had a 100-year-old pattern for baby sweaters that I’ve taught the knitters how to make. When it comes to age, if you feel young, then you are young.

Working together in the gift shop has afforded Shirley, left, and Leslie the chance to build a strong bond and share plenty of laughs.

Joyce: I was pretty depressed and feeling lonely before I met Gloria and started coming out to do crafts and sewing with this group. Since I’ve been losing my sight over the last year, I haven’t been coming out as much since I can’t participate in the activities anymore, but Gloria made sure I was invited and came out today. The friendship, the fellowship I get with this group still matters. It’s harder for me to get out to the centre because I’ve lost my driver’s licence, but I recently got accepted for the Brantford Lift, so that will help.

Angelika: I had a health issue I needed to take care of at the centre, and that’s how I met Gloria, and how I found out about this program. I had only moved to Brantford a few months before that, and so we didn’t really know anyone in the community. These are the only people in Brantford I know. I find the older you get, the harder it gets to make new friends. So everything that Gloria has done, and this group has done for me is incredible. The women here are awesome.

Having others to talk to when health problems arise has made a difference for many of the women who are part of Stitch 'N Chat.

[This post first appeared on AOHC’s Transformative Change in Action blog