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Meet the men in recovery who knit and call themselves ‘toquers’

Meet the men in recovery who knit and call themselves ‘toquers’

Little did Nelson Mendonca know that picking up a pair of knitting needles in prison would lead to him accidentally creating a group of so-called “toquers” at the recovery facility he would end up at.

“I got here and I forgot how grounding it was for me,” said Nelson, who came to Phoenix Society from Corrections and is now in the Transitional Housing Program.

“Just getting fresh out of jail, I was nervous here. I went and got some knitting stuff and just started making a toque. I went down to a meeting and I was knitting. The minute I was knitting in public, I realized my life is different. I don’t care what people think anymore. It spread like wildfire after that. Everyone was asking what I was doing, so I showed one guy on the floor how to do it, then another guy. Before I knew it, it was almost right of passage: To be on my floor you had to learn how to knit.

“So you’d walk into our group and see 10 guys knitting,” he chuckled. “Or walk in and a bunch of guys are watching Scarface and they’re all knitting.”

Nelson estimated the group of roughly 10 men have produced about 200 toques.

Some have been given away as gifts to loved ones, others donated to a woman’s recovery house.

“We have a whole pile we want to donate to the homeless for Christmas,” he said. “And we have a whole bunch of smaller ones that will go to the hospital for babies once COVID-19 is over.”

And the men have upped their crafting game as they’ve gained experience.

“Now we have pom pom makers, we’re mixing colours, making brims, making scarves,” said Nelson. “It hasn’t fizzled out.”

Being at Phoenix is Nelson’s first time in treatment, and he says he’s the happiest he’s ever been. His road to Phoenix was difficult. Unable to walk into treatment on his own, he’s been in and out of prison for over 20 years.

In many ways knitting is a metaphor for what happens at Phoenix: Starting something new, changing things, one stitch at a time.

It’s quite common to see Nelson sitting with someone, patiently showing them how manipulate their yarn to create something meaningful.

“It’s the one thing in my life that I cannot cheat, manipulate, cut a corner or find a shortcut around,” Nelson explained. “I have to follow each little step one by one by one. It makes me realize that to get results, I have to follow the routine, the positive routine. I can’t veer from it, because I won’t end up with the result I want. The most satisfaction for me that’s come out of it is when you give someone a toque, or teach someone how to make one, and they mail it out to their kids or someone else.”

Ben Slaney from Salt Spring Island is just one of the many men who have joined the endeavour.

“I came over here because of issues with opiates. I’ve learned a lot of tools to help me battle this giant,” Ben said of his time at Phoenix. “This ‘toquing’ that we call it, was a great way to get to know the guys. It became therapeutic for me. It’s a great way to give back. I’ve sent some along to family members, some to the girls upstairs, some to the donation box. I really like giving them away.”

Sean, a new member to Phoenix’s recovery community, said he finds the knitting “cathartic” and “it’s good to know they’re going some place nice.”

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