Helen Cruickshank knows she has a reputation as a bag lady but she does not mind because it is all for good causes. Most days she can’t get out a door without a bag of something for someone.
“We were brought up to believe you shared what you had and passed it on when you didn’t need it anymore,” she said, while unpacking hand-knitted mittens and toques and repacking them in a larger bag.
Whatever bag she is carrying could contain children’s items destined for Kids First Resource Centre, a bag of mittens for a school, toe socks to go over a cast, a bag of bedding for a shelter, personal items for Tearmann House or the Shepherd’s Lunchroom or knitted squares for an afghan to be completed by women in Africa who will be paid for their work.
“I’ve been involved with one thing or another for so long people often bring me items, knowing I’ll be able to get them where they are needed.”
One of six girls who grew up on the Reid farm at Riverton, Cruickshank moved to Halifax and then back to Riverton where she and husband Glenn had three children and began caring for foster children.
“We didn’t have the best of everything by any means and we didn’t get any training in those days on how to best deal with children so we just did what we could.”
Many of the foster children were older and spent only a short time with her but she remembers two little boys it hurt to give up.
“They’d been hard work at the start but we got attached to them.”
After the boys were placed elsewhere a social worker brought them a little girl, not yet a year old.
“When Glenn came home from work he looked at her, turned to me and said, ‘She’s not leaving.’ That was it for us, we adopted her and she became our fourth.”
Cruickshank spent 23 years as a teacher, five after graduating from teachers’ college in Truro and 18 after what she termed “a 15 year maternity leave.” When her fourth child started school she spent a lot of time volunteering at Dr. W. A. MacLeod. The principal eventually asked her to consider applying for a job opening.
“Times were quite different from today and it wasn’t really in my mind that I could go back to teaching but I did and enjoyed it. Of course, at the time my mother had friends who were telling her it was a shame poor Helen had to go out to work.”
Cruickshank has always been active in Sharon St. John United Church but it was her work in foster care and as a teacher that turned her into a bag lady.
“It was hard to see children come to school without hats and mittens in winter. It also wasn’t easy for them to learn when they were without basic things the other children had.”
She’d bring mittens and other items made or donated by friends and relatives and give them out where needed. Many years later, she and her sister Mary Romsa still make the rounds of local schools, providing hats, mittens and fleece blankets.
Her adopted daughter is never far from her mind when she visits Kids First Resource Centre. She is pleased to see programs and facilities that were unheard of when her daughter’s birth mother, whom she and her daughter eventually met, was pregnant.
“She was very young and the pregnancy was hidden even within the family. She was expected to go on as if it never happened. Even her sisters did not know so she went many years without talking to anyone about it which must have been heartbreaking.”
Cruickshank was about nine when she learned to knit, having already learned embroidery.
“It was a while ago, back when we had Red Cross and 4-H programs in the schools. On Friday afternoons the boys would have woodworking and the girls would have sewing. My first project was a slip, something that is not even heard of today.”
Even a mistake in directions can bring her to a new project. She was in the Aberdeen Hospital recently, delivering knitted purple hats for newborns as part of a campaign to raise awareness of the danger of shaking babies, when a wrong turn brought her into an orthopedic area.
“I was talking to a nurse when a doctor came along and wondered what I had. He first thought they might be socks to go over casts and when they weren’t, he asked if I could make some so that’s something new.”
Another new project is a small knitted item called a twiddle muff for people with Alzheimer’s.
“It is a small sleeve with a variety of buttons sewed very securely on the inside to keep the fingers busy. They seem to help Alzheimer’s patients who are very anxious.”
A lot of Cruickshank’s knitting is done with the Stellar Knitters who meet once a week at Stellarton library.
“After we started knitting we heard about a group in River John who was knitting squares to be pieced together for AIDS orphans in southern Africa. We decided to join the project so we’ve been sending squares for a few years now. Every time we have enough for an afghan we take them to the post office, squeeze a few little knitted dolls into the corner of the package and they are sent to Africa.”
She enjoys the sociability of getting together with local knitters but notes there are others who don’t come to the group but contribute by dropping knitted items at the library.
Not all Cruickshank’s work involves textiles as she also bags rolled oats for the food bank with the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire and visits hospitals and nursing homes on behalf of her church.
“I have my health and I’m grateful for it so I’m more than happy to do what I can.”