By MSNBC contributor
msnbc.com contributor
updated 9/20/2007 6:03:34 AM ET 2007-09-20T10:03:34

Communicating with gestures and the help of a translator, a dozen 20-something American men attempt to impress upon a handful of Ugandan women the importance of symmetry. The women agreeably oblige. After all, when it comes to crocheting, these guys are the pros.

Strange though it may seem, the young men from California and Washington are indeed crochet experts. More surprising, though, is that they are the creators of an international charity that aims to use needle and yarn to empower impoverished women in Third World countries by providing them with a practical, economically rewarding trade.

“It’s definitely pretty comical to think about, some college-age guys crocheting with some crazy idea of changing the world,” said Kohl Crecelius, 21-year-old co-founder of the Krochet Kids International nonprofit. “But maybe it’s so unique and different, it actually works.”

Crocheting involves using a single hooked needle to stitch yarn into a variety of functional goods, and is not to be confused with knitting, which uses two identical needles to pull yarn through loops and is generally considered the more difficult of the two crafts.

Crecelius and his friends spent part of the summer in the Ugandan town of Gulu, about 175 miles north of the capital, Kampala, teaching impoverished women to crochet.

“I would definitely tell you that it’s been an experience,” said Crecelius, a senior at the University of Washington in Seattle majoring in international business.

Comfortable with their craft
“It’s obviously a huge surprise for people that there’s a bunch of guys crocheting,” said Tyler Ready, a fellow participant and a recent UW graduate. “We’re confident and comfortable enough though to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to use this tool to empower the world.’”

The idea behind Krochet Kids, Crecelius said, is to equip women in poor countries with a functional skill that allows them to make and sell items in their local communities. Krochet Kids supplies the women with the raw materials, tools and training, and pays them a base wage for their efforts. Eventually, the organization plans to sell the handmade products in the U.S., raising additional funds to be sent back to the craftswomen’s communities.

“We want to run a business, but at the same time, we want to help as many people as possible,” Crecelius said.

Big fans of snowboarding and surfing, the Krochet Kids volunteers began by teaching the Ugandan women to  make a product associated with slope and beach fashion: a skull-cap hat known as a “beanie.”  (Long-term, Crecelius said he would like to add purses, shoes and other clothing items to the program’s repertoire.)

So how did a group of sports-loving college guys decide that crocheting was the way they’d help change the world?

Crecelius’ keenness for crocheting began in the winter of 2003, when the then-teenager learned the skill from his older brother, Parc, who had picked up the craft as a freshman in college.

“We got addicted to it,” he recalled. “We started making a couple hats a day.”

The beanie look spreads
He taught a few of his friends, and soon the beanie look caught on. Before long, his high-school peers and others were buying them. Eventually, the group sold the hats to help raise money for their senior prom.

Even when the friends split up to attend colleges in Washington and Southern California, they continued their craftwork, and introduced it to newfound buddies.

About a year ago, spurred by a volunteerism, increasing business acumen and a growing awareness of world issues -- as well as a typical young-adult itch to save the world – Crecelius and his friends began talking about what they could do to help those in need.

“We asked, ‘How can we really help the best? What can we do?’” Crecelius said. “We wanted to empower a group to empower their own people.”

“Finally, we decided we had this tool to do more with,” Ready added. “We decided we wanted to take it to the next level. So, last summer we sat around and dreamed of how things could be.”

Since its 2006 inception, Krochet Kids has raised more than $20,000, mostly by selling hats and T-shirts bearing the charity’s name and through donations from friends and family, Ready said.

Uganda is proving ground
Last spring, the Krochet Kids decided the time was ripe for an international test of their concept. They decided to start out in Uganda, since co-founder Stewart Ramsey had previously volunteered there and he and other members had connections with other nonprofits working in Uganda, including Invisible Children, Ready explained.

The need also is great, since the east African country has been torn apart by an ongoing civil war that has lasted nearly 20 years, disrupting the economy and leaving many Ugandans without work.

“The biggest thing is that they just need jobs, they need a way to be employed,” Ready said. “It is another way out of poverty for them.”

Teaching the women how to crochet was the easy part, Crecelius said. The tough part, the group found, was being able to carry out their vision in a country with different customs and laws.

While Krochet Kids is recognized as a nonprofit in the U.S., it was not registered to perform charitable work in Uganda.

“We had everything planned, but once we got there, we just realized the pace of the culture and everything that happens is a little slower than we were expecting,” Crecelius said.  “It’s a process, and we have to figure out how we fit into that.”

The bureaucratic roadblock forced members of the Krochet Kids team to work with other Uganda-sanctioned nonprofits rather than independently. (Though most spent a month in the country, some are staying for an entire year to earn school credit as well as continue to oversee Krochet Kids efforts to obtain nonprofit status there.)

Working with the local Ugandan nonprofit Kica ber, Krochet Kids’ volunteers found nine local Ugandan women interested in learning to crochet and ended up with six participants for the one-week trial run.

Can volunteers master it?
“It was important to figure out if they could crochet,” Crecelius said. “We found out that they could. They were actually very skilled with their hands and almost everyone picked it up quickly. The first day, the woman I was crocheting with – Alice – made, like, a flawless hat. And by the third day, the majority were making almost flawless hats, so that was pretty cool. We knew that our program worked.”

The female participants were mostly young, between the ages of 15 and 23, and many were “child-mothers,” a term used to describe young females abducted by rebel forces and impregnated by their captors.

“It really brings into perspective why the people are how they are,” Crecelius said. “It’s just really humbling to see, and it made me so patient. (The women) are very quiet, just because of their experiences and treatment during their entire lives, but they’re eager to learn. And they came in every day smiling, despite everything going on around them.”

The women made about 20 hats in total, Crecelius said, all of which are currently sitting in his Spokane, Wash., bedroom.

Krochet Kids intended to begin selling hats over the Internet this fall, but the timetable has slipped to winter or next spring. Crecelius said Krochet Kids wants to be sure it can support itself financially and that it will have enough quality products before making them available for purchase.

In the meantime, participants in the charity plan to return to Uganda soon and are looking to expand the program into Spanish-speaking countries.

“We’ll see how the rest of this year unfolds,” Crecelius said. “We know that the programs works, now it’s just the process of figuring out how to help best.”

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