Knitter extraordinaire named this year’s Lifetime Volunteer of the Year

If your baby was born at a hospital in the Lower Mainland, there’s a good chance he or she could have left the hospital wearing a hat, or wrapped in a cozy blanket, knitted by Janis Waller.

Waller was named the Lifetime Volunteer of the Year at this year’s Lifetime Seniors Talks + Tables event, presented by the Vancouver Courier and St. Paul’s Foundation. The 70-year-old knits with five different groups in Vancouver and Burnaby, and donates many tiny toques to local hospitals.

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This year alone she has knit and donated more than 200 baby hats to St. Paul’s Hospital, with each hat taking about an hour and a half to create. In addition to knitting the hats, she also delivers them, as well as ones knitted by other volunteers, to the hospital.

“I saw how much the nurses appreciated them,” she said.

A self-described “Air Force brat,” Waller was born in Montreal, but her family moved frequently as her father served in the military. The family settled in Burnaby in 1959, when Waller was 12, and she now lives in Yaletown.

She learned to knit at the age of eight when the family was living in Winnipeg. She said she took it up for a few years and even joined an after school knitting club but dropped the hobby for several years before picking up knitting needles again in her 20s.

Armed with her transit pass and a knitting project, Waller spends many hours travelling all over the Lower Mainland, going to thrift shops to look for good, but inexpensive, balls of yarn or hand-knitted items that can be recycled into useable yarn to make baby hats and blankets, scarves, mittens, fingerless gloves and toques.

She calls herself a “yarn broker” because she loves unravelling sweaters, washing, rewinding and repurposing the yarn.

“She is always willing to share her yarn stash with anyone who needs a ball or two for their projects,” Linda Hull said in nominating Waller. “I can think of only three things that she has ever knit for herself.”

Waller is an active member of the St. James Anglican Church where, in addition to singing in the choir, she helps organize the biannual rummage sales and, of course, knits many items for the sales that benefit the work the church does with residents of the Downtown Eastside.

When Waller became a senior, she joined the Oakridge Seniors’ Centre where she first volunteered as the bookkeeper and later organized regular knitting and crocheting meetings at the centre where she helps many of the members with their projects. Together the group knits many items for the centre’s spring and fall bazaars that raise money to support various seniors’ activities.

Through her work at the seniors’ centre, Waller is a member of the West Coast Knitters’ Guild, which knits items for various charitable projects, including Christmas sales that benefit Nova House in Richmond, which runs a safe house for women and children fleeing abusive situations; and the Purple Hat Campaign, which endeavours to give a purple baby hat to every new mother leaving the maternity ward in October and November to raise awareness about shaken baby syndrome.

Now every purple ball of yarn Waller gets her hands on is knit into a baby hat.

She was one of the first to join Knit 2gether, a knitting group at the Tommy Douglas library in Burnaby where she helps teach attendees how to knit and crochet. The group also knits for the Itty Bitty Blanket Campaign, making blankets for babies in the neonatal intensive care units at St. Paul’s Hospital and Royal Columbian Hospital. As well, she has knit blankets for Project Linus, which provides comfort blankets for critically ill children.

In addition to her volunteer work, in recent years Waller has helped look after her parents and in-laws. She’s also always there to visit and shop for friends, if they are hospitalized or housebound.

Hull wrote in her nomination: “As the saying goes, ‘If you need something done, ask a busy person.’ Janis is that busy person. She extends herself whenever and wherever she can and does so with joy and laughter.”

@JessicaEKerr

jkerr@vancourier.com

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