Published on 12/05/13

UGA Extension class knits senior citizens together

By Sharon Dowdy

It started as a crafting workshop, but as time goes on it’s clear that the most important things the women in this University of Georgia Extension class are making is new friendships.

The class, offered by Rockdale County Extension program assistant Dorsey Sharpton, meets at the county’s senior center two days a week. The students create handcrafted purses out of recycled yarn and nurture their newfound network of friends in the process.

Sharing her passion

Sharpton grew up in Puerto Rico where she spent much of her childhood watching women talk about crafting in her mother’s yarn shop. Two years ago she decided to put those childhood experiences to use teaching a class to older women in her community.

“I have met these wonderful people, and I’ve never had time to do things like this before,” said Bebe Morgan, a 67-year-old Vietnam War veteran and retired forensic psychiatric nurse. “I don’t have any (family) left here in Georgia and this is a (remedy) for me.”

After retiring from Grady Hospital, Morgan was “just sitting at home” until her hairdresser told her about the Extension class.

Many of the women in Sharpton’s class were in the same boat. They wanted to make new friends and to have something productive to do during the day.

From novices to experts

Some of the ladies at Olivia Haydel Senior Services Center already knew how to crochet or knit, but plarn — yarn made from recycled plastic bags or plastic tablecloths — was new to everyone. Most have mastered the new material, and now donate their crafty creations to nonprofit organizations or share them with family and friends.

Each of the ladies in the class adds her own personal touch to what she creates.

Tomma Stone, 77, uses only red, white and blue yarn. The retired Georgia State University English teacher is a devoted Braves fan. She crafts small purses, fills them with mints and donates them to Samaritan’s Purse. And she makes sweaters for the Knit for Kids program.

Sylvia Genus, 72, is known for wearing large bracelets and earrings. So, she makes large purses. Genus gives her purses to her grandchildren, daughter and friends, and has even sold a few.

Tragedy brought Beth Pilcher, 67, to Conyers and to the crafting class. She lost her home near Chattanooga, Tenn. to a house fire and moved to Georgia to be near her family.

“I wanted to meet people my age and started coming to the center,” said Pilcher, who was already a skilled seamstress and crafter. “I like to keep my hands busy. I can’t just sit and watch TV.” Pilcher has sold a couple of her creations, but she usually gives them away or uses them herself.

Two years ago when she joined the class, Lisa Ellis, 73, didn’t know how to crochet. Now she makes slippers from yarn and purses from both yarn and plarn.

“I give them to my family and friends and anyone who wants one,” she said.

Lessons and entertainment

During class, Ellis entertains the other ladies with stories from her days working in downtown Atlanta at the Georgia State Patrol headquarters. “I was voted Ms. Georgia State Patrol and Gov. George Busbee presented me with a plaque,” she said.

Vanessa Johnson, 61, came to the class to help overcome a bout of depression. “I sang opera, so when I lost my voice, I was depressed. I met Dorsey and she was so nice to me, she made me want to come to the class,” she said.

Johnson is struggling to learn to crochet but she enjoys the fellowship of the group.

At 62, Barbara Danzy is the youngest in the craft class. Following a career with the postal service, she joined the group in search of friends and fellowship. She now sells yarn hats and headbands at yard sales to fund mission trips to Liberia and Ghana.

Loretta Mitchell, 74, moved to Georgia after spending most of her adult life in New York. She joined the senior crafting group out of boredom. Now, she sells her plarn purses locally and to her friends in New York.

“I got $40 for a bag I sent to New York and a lady here in Georgia bought a smaller one for $20,” she said. Mitchell hopes to turn her crafting into a business to supplement her income.

A mother of five, Fairby Brooks, 76, creates purses for her children and grandchildren. “I used to crochet whole spreads out of granny stitches and I wanted to learn how to make bags out of plastic yarn,” she said.

Winifred Headley, 72, also crafts for her family members. A native of South America, she crochets purses, slippers, scarves and hats.

“I knew how to crochet, but Dorsey taught me how to read the instructions,” said Headley, the only member of the group who follows patterns.

Call your local UGA Extension agent

UGA family and consumer science Extension agents present similar programs for senior citizens across the state. For information on programs in your county, call 1-800-ASK-UGA1. To view a series of UGA Extension newsletters for senior citizens, see Senior Sense at

Sharon Dowdy is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

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