91-year-old man knits hats for the homeless

GRANDVILLE, Mich. -- When you reach the end of your life, what will go through your mind? Which areas of your life will you scrutinize and take inventory? Will you evaluate whether or not you were a good son, sibling, father and friend? Maybe you’ll think about the accomplishments you accumulated or, perhaps, some of the failures and shortcomings.

Others may focus exclusively on the end, lean on their faith, and concentrate on what they believe is to come in the afterlife.

Morrie Boogaart knows he’s nearing the end of his life. The 91-years old is currently a resident at Cambridge Manor assisted living facility in Grandville, Michigan. He’s barely mobile, spending every day bedridden. Family members visit him regularly, but when they leave, Morrie is left with his life-long memories to stimulate him.

A well-worn bible sits innocently on his nightstand, and hanging on one of his walls is an 8x10 photo of his wife Donna Mae, who passed away 16 years ago.

“I had a good life,” said Boogaart, while he slowly wraps yarn around his spindle. “I have always accepted what I had in life, and this is now what it is for me.”

Right next to Morrie’s nightstand is a pile of brown boxes stacked on top of each other. None of the boxes can be closed because each one is overflowing with more yarn.

“I just like to do it,” said Morrie, as he continued knitting. “My eyes aren’t as good as they used to be, but I can still do this.”

Boogaart wakes up every morning and starts knitting. He doesn’t stop knitting until he falls asleep at night. This happens all day, every day.

“This is my life,” said Morrie. “I have always liked to help people, and I’m not going to stop now."

“We all need a sense of purpose.”

Morrie knits hats, and since he started doing it nearly 15 years ago, he claims to have knitted at least 8,000 of them.

“That’s why most people call me the ‘Hat Man,’” he said.

Word of the Hat Man’s creations began circulating far beyond the four walls of his room at Cambridge Manor a while ago. As people learned of his hobby, they began donating yarn.

“I would come visit him and there would be piles of yarn in his room,” said Karen Lauters, Morrie’s daughter. “The donations have been coming in from not just people visiting the nursing home, but from around the community, including several Churches in the area.”

When asked what he wanted as gifts each year for Christmas, Father’s Day and his birthday, he’d ask for only one item - Yarn.

“What else do you give him,” Lauters said, jokingly. “Yarn is truly all he needs, and what he’s doing with it is truly amazing and inspiring.”

Knitting hats isn’t just a hobby for Morrie. He has made it certain that every hat he knits gets donated to a homeless shelter in West Michigan so people in need can have a warm hat to wear.

“When people heard the reason behind why my dad was making the hats, social media grabbed a hold of it, and yarn started being shipped to us from all over the world,” said Lauters. “We received yarn from as far away as Australia and we heard that people were discussing it on Twitter in China.”

Rick Snyder, the Governor of Michigan, was informed of what Morrie was doing. The governor took the time to write, sign and mail Morrie a letter.

“I can’t believe the amount of attention this has received,” added Lauters. “It’s all sort of rejuvenated his spirit for life.”

Morrie hopes to knit hats for as long as his health allows, but his health has been failing in recent months. He was diagnosed with skin cancer in the summer of 2015. The Cancer started to spread, and a mass has shown up on his kidney.

“We put my dad into Hospice care a little over a year ago after he had acquired pneumonia on top of cancer,” said Lauters. “As a family, we didn’t think he was going to recover, but he recovered from pneumonia and was taken out of Hospice care.

“His health hasn’t worsened over the course of the past year, but cancer will likely eventually claim his life. Surgery was presented as an option to our family by doctors, but it was determined at his age he probably wouldn’t survive any extreme medical procedures, so we’ve all accepted the situation for what it is.”

While Morrie has spent the better part of the last 18 months enduring his own cancer battle, he lost his son Russell to the disease in November 2015.

“Russell died just six months after he was diagnosed,” Morrie said. “That was very hard on me because I wasn’t able to make it to his funeral and properly say goodbye.”

It’s been constantly knitting hats that have kept Morrie going, and continuing to focus on living rather than dying. Knowing that every loop he makes on his hoop is going toward helping those in need, while helping him discover some purpose.

“Some days are good, and other days aren’t so good, but I don’t ever want to quit doing this,” said Morrie. “There’s too many homeless people out there who need others to care about them.”

Karen Lauters visits her father often, but there are other times when her visits are strictly business. Sometimes, her sole purpose in visiting is to take all of the hats Morrie has finished knitting, box them up, and deliver them to homeless shelters that her dad suggests.

“He would sort all the hats into the boxes and would write on them where he wants them to go,” said Lauters. “Some boxes would be labeled ‘Mel Trotter’ and others would say ‘Salvation Army.’”

Karen loads 8 to 10 boxes of hats into her vehicle at a time, then personally drives them to the shelters. On this day, she delivered several boxes to Mel Trotter Ministries in downtown Grand Rapids.

“We get donations dropped off here all the time at Mel Trotter,” said Abbey Sladick, director of communications for Mel Trotter. “Rarely do we get to see the faces behind the donations, but when we learned about Morrie and what he was doing, he was somebody we wanted to meet.”

Abbey and Karen emptied all the hats from the boxes and spread them on a table near the entrance to the cafeteria. As residents of Mel Trotter lined up for lunch, Sladick directed them to the table where they could select a hat to keep.

“A winter hat means a lot to people here,” said Sladick. “Knowing that they have something on their head that keeps them warm, and was knitted with love, I think is wonderful.

“Morrie teaches everybody that no matter how old we are, or what medical condition we may have, we can all give back in some way.

“We can all learn from Morrie Boogaart.”

Karen Lauters knows her father is in the sunset of his life, but she’s beyond thrilled and is extremely proud of how he’s found purpose and meaning in the face of his terminal illness.

“We should all be as driven as my dad,” said Lauters. “What he’s done [knitting all the hats and donating them to homeless shelters] has touched a lot of people, and it’s been the best thing that could have ever happened to him, given his circumstances.”

If his health allows, the Hat Man will continue knitting hats from his bed at the Grandville assisted living facility. His goal will continue to be to start and finish three hats per day, ensuring that his ‘end’ might be a ‘beginning’ for those in need.

“If you take this [knitting hats] away from me, my life is over,” Morrie said. “Please don’t take it away.”

***

This video is part of our #ShareYourHumankind campaign. Share a video from this series on Facebook or Twitter from November 24, 2016, to November 29, 2016, and the USA TODAY NETWORK will donate $1 (up to $10,000 total) to be evenly distributed between Feeding America®, Heifer International and the ASPCA®.

(© 2016 WZZM)


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