Good Works

Woolly Work

SHALOM’s activities, store and homes aid adults with disabilities
Denise Crane places completed wool balls in a display in the SHALOM store while Debbie Pratley assists.

Driving down Riverview Drive north of Parchment, one could easily miss the SHALOM Shepherd’s Barn. Tucked behind a 19th-century farmhouse, the unassuming red building contains an activity center, the Connection Depot Thrift Store and a “woolery,” all of which exist to serve adults with developmental disabilities.

SHALOM, an acronym for Self-Help Alternative Living Opportunities of Michigan, (and also a Hebrew greeting that means “peace”) describes itself as a people-focused, Christ-centered nonprofit organization that is supported by many people in the Kalamazoo area as well as by churches and businesses.

Three days per week, a beehive of activity occurs inside the Shepherd’s Barn. During this time, the woolery meets, gathering SHALOM residents and volunteers to process raw wool and make wool products, such as bird nesting balls, cat balls, dryer balls and potholders. These are sold in the organization’s thrift store.

But the work done here isn’t just about work. It’s also about personal fulfillment and a sense of belonging.

“There’s always the social aspect, where people are interacting while working,” says Keith Lohman, SHALOM’s executive director. “They’re laughing and talking. They learn to do something well that they’ve never done before.”

During processing, one group works the skirting table, where the raw wool gets separated from manure, sticks and straw. The separated wool goes to other workers who wash it and then to another set of workers who rinse and spin the wool. Finally, Lohman and a few others make the prepared fiber into felt or woving fabric for products.

The woolery’s participants have even had the opportunity to teach others their craft. Western Michigan University’s Occupational Therapy Department, which works closely with SHALOM, invited the organization’s residents and volunteers to instruct students on how to make wool items.

“They’ve really taken us under their wing,” Lohman says. “It’s one of the field experiences occupational therapy students can participate in.”

The woolery is also moving toward making rugs with the wool. It owns four looms but lacks operational knowledge. That situation will soon change because Charles and Dee Jackson of Constantine have volunteered to set up the looms and provide instruction. The first loom is nearly ready, and training will begin shortly.

“It will take any number of visits for them to get a few of us up and running to the point that we can train and work with our participants,” Lohman explains. “This process is a high priority as the woolery grows so as to give a new creative outlet.”

The wool for SHALOM’s goods comes from three sources.

“We have 11 sheep of our own that supply 25 percent of what we need,” Lohman says. “We buy wool, and some is donated.”

Across the street from the Shepherd’s Barn is SHALOM Farm, a 180-acre tract with two acres currently used for farming. To the right of the barn, amid a grove of maple trees, stands a sugar shack, where volunteers and residents produce maple syrup for the store. The opposite end of the farm houses the animals. Besides sheep, the farm is home to Nigerian dwarf goats, lambs, chickens and ducks. Most recently, SHALOM welcomed Grace and Suki, two donated alpaca that will provide the woolery with alpaca fiber for products.

SHALOM began 25 years ago when Sara and Glen Collison purchased an old farmhouse, renovated it and lived there with their own children and 12 residents with developmental disabilities. “They sensed a call to begin this organization,” Lohman says of the Collisons.

Operating as an extended family, the SHALOM network now includes six homes, all located within a mile of the Shepherd’s Barn, that give residents a place to live with necessary support. Christian care providers manage each of the homes, and at full capacity the network can house 37 residents.

“It can be lonely and hard work, but there is a lifestyle of mutual support with the homes,” Lohman says.

SHALOM currently has more than 110 volunteers, and individuals and churches fund the nonprofit organization. “Donations to our store are all from individuals in the community, which nets nearly 10 percent of our day-to-day needs,” Lohman says. “Capital improvements are mostly funded through grants, with significant additional designated funds from individuals.”

Collaboration with other organizations is also welcomed. Students from WoodsEdge Learning Center, a special-education school in Portage, visit and help process donated clothing for the store. The Shepherd’s Barn hosts monthly meetings of the Aktion Club, a division of Kiwanis Clubs that serves adults with disabilities.

Lohman expresses hopes for SHALOM farm, envisioning part-time job coaches who will help residents perform chores. Offering something different from city life, the farm is a place of refuge, Lohman says. Last year SHALOM built 25 raised vegetable gardens and topped the paths between the wooden units with hard-packed stone dust for wheelchair accessibility. Lohman hopes to extend the paths throughout the rest of the farm area, which includes an apple orchard, and around the barns.

“Our intention is to keep doing what we’re doing and reach out to more and more people with disabilities,” he says.

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MORE INFORMATION

Visit the store

What:

SHALOM’s Connection Depot Thrift Store

Where:

6276 N. Riverview Drive, Parchment

When:

9 a.m.-3 p.m. Friday and Saturday