On a chilly morning in 2017, Kate Shea '13 was rushing to catch her train alongside fellow Boston commuters when she spotted a woman holding a sign that read, "Homeless. Anything Helps." Shea almost kept walking, but then she realized there was something she could offer.
"I went up to her, and she said her name was Rose," Shea recalls. After introducing herself, Shea asked if she could make Rose a pair of mittens, telling her she'd look for her the next day. As Shea was walking away, Rose called back over the crowd noting that pink was her favorite color.
"I wanted to give her something that would spark some joy," Shea says. "I went home and made a pair of mittens for her with a little pink rose flower that I found on a sweater." She spotted Rose the next day and gave her the mittens: "It was a really special moment."
That was one of the first pairs of mittens Shea gave away through Lost & Found Mittens, the online shop she started earlier that year with her younger sister Erin Shea.
For each pair of mittens purchased, the sisters sew and donate a pair to people experiencing homelessness. Made from repurposed materials and sewn with fleece lining, each pair is unique. The model is cost-effective, environmentally friendly — and leaves room for others to share in the mission by contributing spare fabric.
In the first two years, orders flew in from almost every state. Today, Lost & Found Mittens has donated more than 2,000 pairs, even partnering with Pine Street Inn, the largest provider of homeless services in New England, and taking part in the annual Homeless Census in Boston, passing out mittens on frigid nights.
"The driving force was the want and need to do something positive in our own community. That definitely came from and is inspired by all the experiences I had at Holy Cross," says Shea, who majored in sociology and studio art. "From spring break immersion for four years to reflection workshops, service was front and center."
After graduating, Shea moved to Boston to serve with AmeriCorps for a year. Every day, she found herself walking by someone living on the streets: "I was starting to think, 'What could be a way to build a bridge of kindness between ourselves and this population?'"
Then, Shea had two defining moments with sewing. "I had a student who had a rip in her leggings," she recalls of her time working at a school during her service year. "I brought in a little sewing kit, shared with her how to sew and, at the end of the year, gave her her own kit." Soon after, Shea saw her grandmother make a new pair of mittens using old sweaters. The idea for Lost & Found Mittens, and its social mission, clicked.
After a full day of work — Kate as director of community impact at United Way of Massachusetts Bay & Merrimack Valley and Erin as a development assistant at the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston — the sisters, now roommates, switch into sewing mode. "We've transformed part of our apartment into a little factory," Shea laughs.
And while it can be hard as a team of just two, she says it's still important to act: "We're not going to be able to make a pair for everyone who needs one. But we're going to try, at least."
So it's no wonder that as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded this spring, the sisters knew the difference two pairs of helping hands can make.
Switching from mittens to masks, Kate and Erin have sewn more than 2,000 (and counting) nonmedical cloth masks to donate to essential workers in health care, delivery services and grocery stores, to name a few. And, with shifting recommendations and growing demand, they're also selling cloth masks, donating additional masks for each purchase.
Shea hopes the level of neighborly care she's seeing will continue long after the current crisis, noting that anyone can spread kindness: "We're just regular people, trying to do something."
Five Questions With Kate Shea '13
What's something you've learned about homelessness?
The biggest takeaway is that it's something someone is experiencing, not who they are. You are not a homeless individual, but you are experiencing homelessness. And it can happen to anyone.
Can you give a window into a typical sewing session at Lost & Found Mittens?
If you know what sewing machines sound like, it's like starting up our engines! Definitely loud, lots of fabric scraps everywhere. It can be fun. It can be stressful. It's good to do it with a teammate. Being on a team with my sister is pretty awesome.
How do you find fabric for the mittens?
There's a lot of great people, including those in the Holy Cross community, who've given donations from the beginning. "Is this good for mittens?" is the new thought of our extended circles!
What does "for and with others" mean to you?
"With" is the biggest word for me in that. Making sure you are being with the community, learning from it and recognizing the strengths within it.
Any advice for others looking for ways to live the Holy Cross mission?
You probably already are! So how can you do it more often?
Written by Meredith Fidrocki for the Summer 2020 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.
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