Donna Douglas has turned her own tough times into an opportunity of a lifetime for others, the chance for a post-secondary education.
Her knitted owls, or Hootables, have raised more than $47,000 and paid the tuition for four local students.
“The owls are just the vehicle, that’s all they are,” said Douglas. “They are the vehicle for doing something outside of yourself when life has dealt you a really big challenge.”
It began a few years ago, when the Barrie woman had some physical problems with a painfully bad back and, as a lifelong knitter, was frustrated she couldn’t do her normal knitting projects.
But Douglas found something, picking up four short needles, starting to play around with a circular pattern and coming up with what she describes as a pretty cute owl – standing a foot tall, full of character with claws and beak, plus orange and black eyes.
Her first owl was a girl named Petal, the second a boy named Peter. Douglas began producing owls, but the question became what to do with them?
A long-time, popular columnist in Barrie’s newspapers, Douglas is a storyteller and she found one that fit – a young woman working through high school without financial hope of a college or university education.
“The idea didn’t hit like a thunder-bolt; it sort of emerged as a possibility,” she recalled. “If these owls found their way into a few public spaces, maybe people would buy them.”
Douglas kept up the owl production and people did start to buy them, at $50 each, and for many reasons – to send to adult children, for babies not yet born but on the way, in a company’s corporate colours.
Her daughter designed canvas labels with the name of each individual owl, sewn to the backside of the birds.
Why have Hootables become so popular?
“I think it’s the cause,” Douglas explained. “I think it’s the fact that when somebody buys one of these, they’re buying something that’s really giving twice. If they’re giving it as a gift, it’s a gift, but it’s also a contribution toward a kid’s education.”
Hootables are now also in Montreal, Victoria, New York, New Jersey, the Cayman Islands, Thailand and beyond.
Flip back to one summer, when Douglas was able to take Hootable proceeds and write a $9,000 cheque to pay for five semesters of tuition for a young woman studying early childhood education at Ottawa’s Algonquin College.
“That’s $9,000 from yarn, and fibrefill, and labels, and love,” Douglas said.
A second student has graduated and has full-time employment, but applied to a university nursing program – with no student debt. All six semesters have been paid for a third student, who has graduated and is employed. And a fourth student is being supported.
“This looks like a story about an old lady knitting,” said Douglas, just 72. “It isn’t, it’s about finding the gift in the negative – when bad stuff happens to you, finding the gift and then making the gift become really good. “And that’s what this is about.”
More than 900 owls have been knitted by Douglas and volunteer knitters Kathy Currie-Eyers and Joanne Wilson.
Donna Douglas and her Hootables will have a booth at the St. Thomas Christmas Tea and Crafts in Shanty Bay later this week, Nov. 29 and 30, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
For more information, visit Hootables.ca.