Stitching Together New Lives: The Inspiring Story of Krochet Kids

The snowboarding high-school friends behind the nonprofit are empowering women in Uganda and Peru with hooks, yarn and robust attention to impact.
March 27, 2015

#KnowWhoMadeIt. That’s inscribed on every hand-crocheted beanie, scarf, backpack and T-shirt Krochet Kids Intl. makes. Those hand-signed tags signify the stories of 200 women from Uganda and Peru, who are the reason for the organization’s existence.

“The signatures make it clear,” CEO Kohl Crecelius says, “you’re not buying just another hat or scarf.”

That’s also why you'll have a hard time finding much biographical information about the three founders—of Crecelius, CFO/COO Travis Hartanov and VP Sales and Marketing Stewart Ramsey—anywhere on their website. “We didn’t want the focus to be on us,” Crecelius says. Instead, every woman’s photo is posted on the website, and you can click on each to read about their often harrowing histories and their aspirations.

There’s Abalo Margret, who was held captive by the extremist Ugandan group the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) for 14 years and now dreams of sending “[her] children to school so that they might have a bright future.”

Or Aber Rose who witnessed family members being killed by rebels and says, “The most beautiful things about Northern Uganda is the prevailing peace that we have now.”

Every social enterprise has well-intended goals. But they often go unrealized because, Crecelius says, “People overlook listening to those they want to serve.” There was, for example, an organization that brought hundreds of sewing machines to Uganda to teach women how to sew. “Yes, these women learned a skill,” Crecelius says, “but the enterprise failed because there was no market for those skills. You need to understand the context you’re operating in.”

Krochet Kids takes pains to achieve this understanding. For starters, the 15-person staff in Costa Mesa, California, includes an anthropologist, Adam Thomson. With the title of vice president of impact, Thomson formulated a holistic “theory of change” that functions as a “roadmap to empowerment,” making sure that Krochet Kids does more than what he calls “fly-by development.”

One of Thomson’s initiatives includes teaming every woman with a local mentor, often a teacher or social worker.

Krochet Kids has a rigorous monitoring system that each month evaluates 45 different indicators across six dimensions: income stability, investment knowledge, relationships, and physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. These assessments bore deep: evaluating women’s eating habits, for example, to measure that they’re consuming a diversity of vegetables and proteins, moving beyond the typical subsistence diet of rice, beans and root vegetables.

Krochet Kids also tracks the real-time impact of their programs. They can tell you that the income of women who participate in Krochet Kids increases tenfold and that children are 25 times more likely to attend high school if their mother takes part in the program.

That’s an exacting approach for a company that began pretty much by accident. Crecelius, Hartanov and Ramsey were high school students in Spokane, Washington, and avid snowboarders when they began crocheting hats to wear on the slopes. Dubbed the “Krochet Kids” by a local newspaper, the three went their separate ways in college, where each spent summers volunteering in developing countries.

“We all wanted to find a way to help people in poverty that went beyond philanthropy, which is typically about handouts,” Crecelius says.

In an “aha” moment they realized that people could be “transformed by hook and yarn.” Halfway through college, the three formed a nonprofit organization, and the following summer they found themselves sitting in a brick hut in Uganda with bags full of yarn, watching as the women quickly mastered crocheting.

Today, inside every Krochet Kids product you’ll find that hand-signed label by the person who made it.

Last fall, 40 women graduated from the program in Uganda and will be moving on to start their own businesses or into careers in agricultural, commerce or teaching.

“We’re not very good at bragging about what we do,” Crecelius says, “but we’re very proud of that.”

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