Weedsport woman organized hat giveaway with Schweinfurth’s help

Melody Johnson displays the handmade donations from knitters associated with the Schweinfurth Arts Center.

Melody Johnson, organizer of My Hands Warm Your Heart – For Women by Women hat and scarf giveaway, arrived at the Rescue Mission shelter in Auburn Wednesday afternoon and started setting up tables with the knitted items she would be handing out.

As soon as she was done, women began showing up. Jennifer Baker came with her 10-year-old daughter and tried on a blue hat with spirals hanging off the top. Her daughter took one look at the hat and grabbed it from her mother’s head, saying. “That’s mine!”

Baker instead selected a cream-colored headband bedazzled with a cluster of glass diamonds and pink fingerless gloves decorated with a single line of pearls. “Yes, I have hats,” Baker said, “but nothing like this!”

“It does matter having that little bit extra bling,” Johnson said. “It makes a woman feel so good! 2020 has kicked our butts, so whatever we can do to make it better is worth it.”

Chrystal Burden displays a head covering she picked up at the giveaway.

The distribution capped a joint effort by Johnson, who lives in Weedsport, and a group of knitters connected to the Schweinfurth Art Center to make more than 100 hats, scarves, shawls, and gloves since early September. Johnson, who owns the for-profit company Divine Coverings, and independent consultant LeeAnn Slomski bedazzled about 60 items over the weekend.

“I have been homeless, endured a history of sexual abuse, and know what it means to have someone outside of your circle affirm you,” Johnson said. “I know that this one act of kindness could make a world of difference. It’s powerful.”

Chrystal Burden, another recipient of the giveaway, agreed. “Someone took the time to make this for us,” she said. “It’s just wonderful!”

Johnson is vice president for human resources at the Cayuga Center and founded Beverly L. Smith Empowerment Initiative, a nonprofit that provides scholarships, mentors, and entrepreneur coaching for young women of color.

“I am always drawn to movements and activities that support women,” she said. “I’m originally from New York City and after spending a few brutal winters in Central New York, I dreamed of having local artisans create outerwear as gifts to the women sheltered at the Rescue Mission.”

Knitters like Mary Beth Haswell, of Skaneateles, helped Johnson fulfill that dream. A member of the Schweinfurth’s knitting group, she made and donated several pieces to the cause.

“I really wish I had made more items for this project,” she said. “What impressed me most was that this project was giving me the power to help empower women who may not have had many helping hands in their lives.”

Haswell has also made blankets for two different charities. “I think projects like all of the above are very valuable,” she said. “I think the receivers of the gifts may feel that someone does care about them, that someone took the time to make something special just for them so they know they do matter after all.”

Johnson said she plans to bedazzle the remaining items and come back to give the rest away. She plans to make the giveaway an annual event, and hopes to spread it across the country. “It’s my firm belief that community matters, we can take care of each other, and art is activism,” she said.

The Schweinfurth Art Center’s programs are made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.