Sixteen-year-old Diondre Harris was clowning around with his friends last Saturday at an end-of-year cookout at the Marshall-Shadeland office of Allegheny Youth Development.
The boys were eating hot dogs, talking about the NBA playoffs and sharing their report cards. AYD held the event to celebrate all that the few dozen teenage boys who take part in the program did over the course of the last school year.
Among those accomplishments, they learned to knit. They even made parts of the panels that will be hung on the Andy Warhol Bridge later this summer as part of the Knit the Bridge project, which is expected to be the largest “yarn bomb” ever in the United States.
"It's just positive … I like it so much; I just love it," Diondre said. "It's easy and it's not that hard; it's not too complicated. It's just something I can do. If you need somewhere to go or something to do to take your mind off of something, like if somebody bashes my family or my friend or something, I’ll just go in my room and I’ll knit, and just sit there and knit and knit."
Knit the Bridge is a grassroots project. Over the last year, hundreds of people from the region have knit or crocheted panels for the bridge. Earlier this month, the Allegheny County Council approved the plan, and in August, 2,500 panels will be hung from the steel bridge's towers and rails.
AYD administrators learned about Knit the Bridge through art lessons the boys were taking at the Frick Art and Historical Center.
AYD is a long-standing program that serves at-risk teenage boys all over the North Side. Its focus is on academics, said program director Brian Foltz, but that gives them a platform to get the boys involved with activities they would typically not be exposed to, like judo and golf, hiking and camping in the woods, sculpting with clay — and knitting.
"If you teach them something unusual, it’s a lot easier to work in life's lessons and lessons on something like self control ... if it's something that they haven’t experienced before," Foltz said.
And so, the boys were taught to finger knit. But there was some initial resistance from some of the boys, including 13-year-old Isaiah Thompson.
"First I thought it was kind of like girly," he said.
But then he learned the technique.
"It's like you wrap it around all of your fingers, and you keep taking one of them and pulling it behind and then pulling it and you gets more and more ... it's like it takes time and once you start doing it you start getting the hang of it and having fun with it," he said.
Char Harris, program assistant at AYD and Diondre's mother, worked with the boys on their knitting.
"We turned it into kind of a game," she said. "They had to race me knitting, and since it was finger knitting they had to make like, who had the longest panel, who had the longest line, who beat Ms. Char. We did that with a lot of different things they didn’t wanna do … and then they found it interesting and it got to be relaxing to them, that’s what they started to say it was."
The boys kept up the knitting over the winter months in their regular program. Foltz said despite the eye rolling and bravado boy-talk, what he saw in the boys was that they were engaged.
"They’re doing something interesting, but they are talking to each other and visiting with one another and they are — I don’t wanna be stereotypical, but its like little old ladies knitting," Foltz said. "They sit around and gossip and talk about their day or whatever, but they are doing something."
The boys at AYD come from varying backgrounds, but they have a few things in common. When they got involved with the program their grades were suffering. They were acting out and showing signs of worsening behavior. The program helps them, but can’t erase the world outside.
Char Harris said knitting got them to focus on something else.
"You have children in an inner-city community where its very violent, and you hear about different things going on all the time," she said. "If you give them something to take their minds off their problems just for a minute just a little leeway, just a little something and it gives them a chance to breathe."
A few of the other boys have taken to knitting in their free time, like Diondre Harris. He called it a stress reliever.
"It's soothing and you can knit whatever you want to," he said. "There's nobody telling you what to do. It's like art in general, like it just helps you express yourself without having to be violent or criminal-minded.
"You can express yourself in a positive way and nobody can tell you how to do it or like what’s bad or good about it because your doing it in a positive fashion, and you're doing it to make yourself happy."
The boys said they don’t talk about knitting. They have sports and video games and what's on Facebook to discuss, and even though they don’t think it's girly anymore, they don’t want to deal with what other kids might have to say about it.
The panels for Knit the Bridge are going up in August and coming down in September. When they are removed, they’ll be laundered and distributed to homeless and pet shelters.
Char Harris said one of the best things about this is that the panels they knitted as a group will be on display on a bridge that connects their communities to the rest of the city.
"As a parent I get to see, 'Look my son did this!'" she said. "And that’s something I’m going to talk about for years to come and they can also talk about for years to come — kids, grandkids, great-grandkids, just look, look at this — this is what my baby did. And that as a mom makes you wanna tear up and cry, because you don’t see that. You get all the negative, all the negative, all the negative, but this is something that is so positive, and it's something that these kids are participating in and they get to be proud of it and they get to see it. Everybody gets to see it."