Dean Kahn

Sock monkeys comfort Whatcom children in foster care

June Fraser Thistle of Bellingham works with other volunteers and with fellow employees of Western Washington University to make sock monkeys for foster children. Some of the monkeys have “hair” made from wool donated by Denise Mor, who raises sheep and works at Western.
June Fraser Thistle of Bellingham works with other volunteers and with fellow employees of Western Washington University to make sock monkeys for foster children. Some of the monkeys have “hair” made from wool donated by Denise Mor, who raises sheep and works at Western. pdwyer@bhamherald.com

Here’s a recipe for smiles.

Ingredients: One pair of men’s wool work socks, size medium or large. Soft fill material. Used sweaters. Material for clothing small enough for a preemie baby.

Directions: Cut socks to make body parts for a monkey, with a red sock heel becoming the monkey’s red lips.

Sew or knit hats, sweaters, scarves, shirts, dresses and other garments to fit. Turn a piece of sweater into a monkey-size backpack. Make monkey-size pajamas. Put pajamas in backpack.

Result: One child who is trying to cope with abuse or neglect finds respite in the arms of a sock monkey made by hand.

June Fraser Thistle heard the result in person when she helped deliver 43 sock moneys to the Bellingham office of Child Protective Services in the summer of 2014. Beyond the maze of work cubicles, a young girl was crying.

“She was just sad,” Fraser Thistle recalled. “It was a sad cry.”

Someone took a pink sock monkey wearing a tutu to the girl. Fraser Thistle listened closely.

“Is this monkey going to work?” she wondered. “All of a sudden, the girl quit crying. I remember thinking, ‘OK, they work, this is what they’re meant for.’”

Campus origins

Before that moment, Fraser Thistle figured she was done making sock monkeys. But after hearing the girl stop crying, she knew she wanted to make more of them for kids under stress.

Fraser Thistle works as an office manager for the student housing program at Western Washington University. Nearly three years ago, she attended a Phi Kappa Phi gathering on campus to discuss making sock monkeys for children under the care of CPS.

She and a small group of co-workers, Western students and friends started making monkeys, and she decided the monkeys should have clothes, too.

One problem — she knew how to knit but not how to sew.

“If a button came off my clothes, I gave it to Goodwill,” Fraser Thistle said.

But she’s a volunteer for Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services of Whatcom County, so she’s a helper at heart. Someone gave her a sewing machine, and she learned to sew.

“I was adjusting baby clothes down in size to fit a monkey,” she said.

After a second Phi Kappa Phi get-together, 43 sock monkeys were ready for CPS. Fraser Thistle thought an even 100 monkeys was a good goal, so she kept busy with others, and she spread the word.

There’s now a Facebook page for the Bellingham Sock Monkey Project, and volunteers get together twice a month on campus during lunch to work on monkeys. Once a month, volunteers gather in the basement of Fraser Thistle’s Bellingham home to stuff monkey bodies and work on clothing and backpacks. Earlier this month, a dozen women — campus workers, students, friends, an unannounced visitor from Everson —ate homemade soup and bread while they worked and talked.

“There was this sense of empowerment and pure joy,” Fraser Thistle said.

Skookum monkeys

The monkeys found another home thanks to a hair appointment for Fraser Thistle. Her stylist had heard a presentation about Skookum Kids, a new nonprofit in Bellingham that provides shelter for up to 72 hours for children entering the foster care system. It’s one of three such shelters in Washington.

Fraser Thistle decided to learn more about Skookum, and realized it would be a great home for monkeys.

When children are taken from their home because of abuse or neglect, social workers have three days before they appear before a judge with a plan for where the kids will live next. Without a place like Skookum Kids, the children might have to be shuttled among temporary foster homes on short notice, and even spend time in an office with a social worker during the day.

At Skookum Kids, the children are cared for in one place by trained volunteers during those interim days. The children are given three changes of clothes, books and toys, and maybe a coat. And a monkey, if they want one, which they usually do.

“All the younger kids love them,” said Ray Deck III, Skookum’s founding director.

Deck said the monkeys fit Skookum’s goal of providing a setting where the children, who have been through tough times, can be nurtured.

“We’re making it a safe place to remember what it’s like to be a kid again,” he said.

Skookum Kids is open four days a week, and will soon expand to five. It can handle up to six kids at a time.

As Skookum grows to care for more children, Fraser Thistle wants to be sure enough sock monkeys will be available.

She hopes to create a website, and to make Bellingham Sock Monkey Project a nonprofit entity. She also wants to find more people, such as retirees, to make monkeys and clothes, and to boost donations of money and materials.

If the future mirrors the past, she won’t have trouble finding people to help.

“It’s amazing how people get hooked on it, the way I have,” she said.

To help

Learn more about Bellingham Sock Monkey Project on Facebook, or contact June Fraser Thistle at 360-255-3853 or sockmonkeyproject@gmail.com.

Learn more about Skookum Kids at skookumkids.org or SkookumKids@gmail.com.

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