Volunteers — Knitted in to Serve

Volunteers — Knitted in to Serve

2023 marks  50 years of the formation of the official volunteer organization at Oklahoma Children’s Hospital OU Health. Over that time, many incredible volunteers have served selflessly, bringing great joy to children and families and providing much-needed help to the healthcare workers.

In the early 1990s, newly married Debbie Trachtenberg and her husband moved from Arizona to Oklahoma City. Debbie soon joined Junior League of Oklahoma, a women’s volunteer group that works to develop the potential of women and improve communities. Her first Junior League volunteer placement was at Oklahoma Children’s Hospital, and from the moment she set foot through the door, she was hooked. She volunteered in many places across the hospital, including the gift shop and working with the kids on art projects.

During this time, Debbie was also raising her own three children. With a degree in fashion merchandising and business, she opened and ran a successful retail store for 22 years. She passed on a love for volunteering to her children, who would often help at events, and her husband continues to serve behind the scenes.

Two weeks before COVID-19 hit, Debbie retired from her retail store and threw herself into her true passion — volunteer work at Oklahoma Children’s Hospital. While she had always volunteered in some capacity, retirement meant volunteering could be her focus. Her daughter had been taking the family’s Great Dane. Archie, to the hospital as a therapy dog for the kids and their families, but when she went to college, Debbie took over.

Debbie and Archie visit Oklahoma Children’s Hospital every Friday and their visit is highly anticipated. She is given a list of patients who are able to have a therapy dog visit and the kids pet and hug him if they are up to it. Archie also plays with the siblings and the parents, and it serves as a form of stress relief. After visiting with the kids, Archie goes to the dialysis clinic, Jimmy Everest Center, radiology, or The Zone.

“Everyone loves Archie,” Debbie exclaimed. “It’s not just the kids and their families who enjoy his visits, the nurses also love to see him. The minute we enter the hospital the staff are so pleased to see Archie and everyone knows him and wants a visit. And Archie loves all the attention too!”

One day while taking Archie for his visits, Debbie started talking to a woman who was visiting a patient. The woman presented Debbie with a set of knitting needles and some yarn, and told her that she was passing on a new project — knitting hats for the pediatric patients. Debbie was reluctant.

“I’d never knitted anything in my life and I was terrified. I told the woman I couldn’t do it but she insisted I was the right person to pass the project onto and after a short knitting lesson I went home, agreeing to continue the work,” said Debbie.

She watched six hours’ worth of knitting videos on YouTube that night and started to practice. She was concerned that her hats were terrible, but she kept practicing.

Two friends of Debbie who are neighbors and also volunteers at Oklahoma Children’s Hospital joined her in knitting hats, and the group, Knit For Good, grew quickly. As it grew, Debbie and her family recognized that Knit For Good had the potential to be something very important. They researched how knitting was being used to help pediatric patients in other hospitals in the United States, and learned that knitting can reduce depression and anxiety, slow the onset of dementia, and distract a person from chronic pain. The rhythm of knitting helps with serotonin release and can help to lower heart rate and blood pressure, as well as altering brain chemistry, lowering stress hormones and boosting the production of serotonin and dopamine.

In 2021, Debbie and her husband took all of the research and information to team members at Oklahoma Children’s Hospital and were given approval to start a knitting program with the patients. Debbie and a few of her friends from Knit For Good started to give one on one knitting lessons to the kids and their families, and as the interest was so great, they started to teach larger groups of kids in The Zone.

“Knitting gives the kids 30 minutes to forget about why they’re there. They can forget about their pain, their suffering — for whatever reason they are there,” said Debbie. “For kids there longer than a few days, like the kids on dialysis who are there constantly for four hours at a time, three days per week — it gives them something to do that is creative and they love the process and all of the yarns I take in. It’s something that is happy. It’s about the process and they are so proud of what they create.”

Knit For Good currently has 70 people knitting the hats and the group holds a Fall Festival and Spring Festival at Oklahoma Children’s Hospital, where they donate the knitted hats they’ve made. They decorate with a theme and hundreds of kids and their families can choose a hat and are given knitting lessons. At Christmas, they decorate a large Christmas tree in the Family Resource Center just with hats and last December, they gave away over 700 hats in two hours. Staff were invited to attend — nurses, food service and housekeeping — as well as patients, to pick a hat.

Knit For Good has grown extensively and now meets every Tuesday at Debbie’s home where they teach others to knit the hats, pick up yarn, or just work on their knitting. Last year they made and donated 1,280 hats and are already working on more for this year’s Christmas tree.

It takes a very special person to commit so many years to volunteering, and giving up so much of their time for no financial gain. Debbie has worked as a volunteer for Oklahoma Children’s Hospital for three decades and has shown no signs of slowing down.

“When I first started out with Junior League and saw what was happening with the families and what they were going through, I felt such a draw to hopefully help someone take a break, even if it’s just for 30 minutes, to forget about why they are there,” she said. Debbie has achieved this and so much more, and is one of the many examples of the difference a volunteer can make to the lives of so many.

Oklahoma Children’s Hospital welcomes new volunteers to help bring a smile to a child’s face. You can learn more volunteering at Oklahoma Children’s Hospital or learn about more ways you can give.