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Knitting stitches together diverse seniors in Hollywood

The group, whose members hail from countries such as Germany, Korea and India, meets weekly as part of a service program. Over time, the women have become, well, close-knit.

March 21, 2009|SANDY BANKS

I thought knitting was a quiet hobby, pursued by little old ladies in solitude. A visit to the RSVP center in Hollywood showed me that I was only partly right.

The women seated around the table at the Thursday morning knitting club were senior citizens all right -- from 63-year-old Agavanoush Shakhverdian to Ida Capriole, three weeks shy of 92. But they were hardly quiet.

The community room at the center along Yucca Street was buzzing with laughter and the babble of accents was so thick I had to strain to make my questions understood.

But there was no misunderstanding this group's purpose. For these women -- retired secretaries, teachers, clerks, nurses -- knitting was not just a way to pass the time, but a way to connect, give back and step outside their comfort zones.

"It's an outlet for them, and it's a benefit for us," Jackie Raycraft told me on Thursday. Raycraft is the director of the Hollywood center of the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, or RSVP, which connects people older than 55 with volunteer opportunities in their communities.

The center provides the yarn and the room. The women provide the working hands. Up to a dozen women meet for three hours each week, knitting and crocheting scarves, hats, sweaters and baby clothing that is sold at the Farmers Market in Hollywood. Proceeds help pay for the center's annual volunteer banquet and other senior programs that have suffered budget cuts.

Anne Sermons, 90, is the group's matriarch. She's been coming for 22 years from her home several miles away in Hollywood. Now the trip requires two buses, but she rarely misses a session.

Like the city itself, the knitting group has become more international during her tenure. "Now we have ladies from so many different countries," she said. Some of the newcomers don't speak much English. "So sometimes we try talking with our hands," she said.

And sometimes they speak slowly, and very loudly.

As I go around taking names and ages, I get a silent stare from Chong Sun Shin.

"She doesn't speak English," 70-year-old Adele Little interjects. Little rolls over in her wheelchair to translate for me and I wonder: "Does this black woman from Ohio speak Korean?"

She doesn't.

"HOW . . . OLD . . . ARE . . . YOU?," Little says loudly to Shin, with the precise diction of the schoolteacher she once was. "Your age," prompts Nancy Kojima, 80, seated next to her. "Tell her your age."

Shin smiles and nods. "80 years." Shin is a newcomer to the group, but her knitting skills have earned her a top spot in its hierarchy. The other women praise Shin's work -- the soft blankets and baby clothes, the exquisite peach-colored sweater she is wearing.

Some of the women have been knitting since they were young. Sermons learned as a fifth-grader in her native Germany. Shakhverdian -- Anoush to her friends -- came here from Armenia speaking no English, but "knowing everything about knitting."

The others turn to her often for help. "I thought I had 10 thumbs," Little said, until Anoush patiently showed her how to maneuver a crochet hook and knitting needles.

The women have introduced one another to new interests, as well. Little sticks around for a yoga class when the knitting group ends. And she joined a water aerobics class at the prompting of 86-year-old Trudy Sivick, who also teaches line dancing and water aerobics. Sivick persuaded Wilma Burns, 72, to join a choir. Inspired, Burns -- a longtime quilter -- then enrolled in a computer class. The retired nursing assistant takes two buses up to Hollywood from South Los Angeles -- a 90-minute trip -- every Thursday. It's clear she comes as much for what she calls the "international flavor" as for the knitting lessons.

She goes around the table, telling me everybody's name, ticking off their countries of origin -- Germany, Korea, Armenia, Italy, India, El Salvador. . . . "Where are you from, Trudy?" she asks. Sivick looks up from the purple blanket she's knitting. "I'm from Philadelphia."

"What country," Burns presses. "America," Sivick says, in an accent that says Brooklyn loud and clear.

"OK. So she's a Caucasian American," says Burns, a black American, who came to Los Angeles 20 years ago.

"It's just so pleasant, and so interesting," Burns gushed. "Everybody gets along with one another. Nobody ever gets angry, no drama. . . . This is what I came to Los Angeles for."

And while they don't speak one another's languages, "we all speak knitting," Anoush pipes up.

Around the table, the ladies laugh.

I thought I'd find a story about knitting -- the power of a hobby to forge new bonds.

I found that, but also found something even sweeter: The notion that in a city famous for its international pedigree, these women would be so delighted to have stumbled into such diversity.

For Anoush, the support of these new friends -- who call her an artist and proudly wear her handmade earrings and pins -- makes her feel more American. For Burns, it is a way of feeling part of something bigger that transcends daily life in her little corner of America.

And for some, the knitting group is a reminder that they are cared for by more than family and friends.

When Kala Rathi's husband died unexpectedly, she stayed away from the group for months, until the others gently nudged her back.

On Thursday, Rathi, 65 and a mother of three grown daughters, breezed in late, just as others had begun packing up. Greetings rang out around the table.

Anoush and Adele both turned to me and announced: "That's Kala." Followed by: "She's Indian."

--

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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