In a yarn shop on Hamilton Avenue near Bushard Street in Huntington Beach, great things are happening. You get a hint of it when you approach the shop and see, out front on a blue plastic table, photographs of soldiers and a red, white and blue beanie cap.
Inside, it is a heaven for knitters and crocheters — a high-ceilinged, stuffed-to-the-rafters mini-warehouse bursting with thousands of skeins of yarn. There’s vintage yarn from the 60s and 70s, wools, luxury yarns, acrylics — enough to keep a yarn treasure hunter busy for weeks.
Welcome to Miki’s California Yarn Sales, 9452 Hamilton Ave., run by Japanese immigrant Miki Sessler. Over the decades, she has made her name by helping people find what they want, sketching out patterns and directions and making and dyeing her own yarn. Her customers will swear they haven’t experienced a yarn shop like Sessler’s.
And as great as all of that is, it’s not what brought me here. No, I’m here because of that red, white and blue beanie out front. And the hundreds of other multi-colored beanies I see once I enter the shop.
My friend Rochelle Alves thought it might good to visit Miki’s California Yarn Sales. How right she was.
In 1970, at age 26, Sessler came to the U.S. from Yokohama in search of opportunity.
Sessler and her husband, Bertram, opened the yarn shop 43 years ago and worked tirelessly to make it a success. He died 10 years ago, and that loss threw Sessler into an emotional tailspin. She and Bertram had been inseparable, and a year or so after his passing, she got an idea.
“I looked outside, the sun was shining, a bird was at the feeder, and I realized how beautiful life still was,” she said. “At that time, there was a big resurgence in knitting that was taking place and so I became inspired. My husband had served his country proudly, and so I decided it was time to do something to honor not just him but all of the other men and women that serve and sacrifice for the United States of America.”
Thinking that beanies would always be a practical item for soldiers to receive, she set a goal for herself: to eventually have 1 million beanies made and delivered to servicemen and women around the world. Thus, Operation Beanies for Service Members was born on Thanksgiving 2004. Sessler designed a pattern for beanies, made about 50 of them herself and then printed out 200 fliers for interested customers.
To date, the program is responsible for making and shipping more than 107,000 beanies around the world. You read that number correctly. More than 100,000. It is an astounding labor of love that boasts more than 2,500 “Beanie Angels,” as Sessler calls the volunteers who make the caps and then send them to the shop.
People in more than 38 states and various countries take part in this volunteer effort. Early on, Sessler devised a tagging system to keep track of everything.
Each beanie is shipped with a special certificate that reads: “Thank you for your sacrifice for our country. I am proud of you and pray that God will bless you and protect you. Keep up the great job you are doing. This beanie was made especially for you with warm loving thoughts by (and then the name of the knitter or crocheter).”
Additionally, each year Sessler visits the Long Beach Veteran’s Hospital and personally delivers a beanie to every single patient there. And she sends care packages to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland, among other hospitals in this country.
Initially, red tape made it difficult to find out where she should even ship the hats. Today, many photos and framed letters are on display in her shop, sent to her by appreciative soldiers and commanding officers.
Col. Richard Simcock, commanding officer of Regimental Combat Team 6, wrote this from Fallujah, Iraq: “Miki — Your selfless devotion in giving back to your country by taking a moment to create these items and write the words of encouragement should serve as an example for others. Simply put, your compassion makes a difference and will continue to make a difference for those currently deployed in Iraq.”
And there are dozens more, including a special note from former First Lady Laura Bush.
“The power of the beanie,” Sessler calls it, and that power extends from the soldiers to the people who make the beanies. The Beanie Angels include “Grandma Kate,” who makes more than 300 a year for the program. In fact, she’s made more than 2,500 total, choosing green and white yarn in honor of her Irish heritage.
Then there is the knitting group in Arizona: eight women who get together once a month or so to knit beanies for the cause. A seniors group in Westminster brings more than 500 beanies every other month. A 97-year-old great, great grandmother participates. And so many more.
This year alone, 10,000 beanies have arrived at the shop to be cataloged and shipped off. Sessler pays for the shipping herself.
“I do this for my husband, for the troops and most of all for my love of this country,” she said. “This is an honor.”
To become a Beanie Angel or to learn more about what you can do even if you don’t knit or crochet, visit https://www.operationbeanies.org. Let’s help her hit that 1 million mark eventually.
Miki, you are a tireless patriot, and we salute you.
CHRIS EPTING is the author of 19 books, including the new “Baseball in Orange County,” from Arcadia Publishing. You can chat with him on Twitter @chrisepting.