How WA artists, restaurateurs and volunteers are spreading holiday hope

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The holiday hustle and bustle is upon us. Dear reader, pause a moment: Consider this a sign to slow down and remember that giving and goodness are the reasons for the season (and that some gifts aren’t stocked at Target). 

For a dose of holiday cheer and goodwill, look to the community. Artists — musicians, dancers, actors — chefs, and volunteers around Greater Seattle are spreading real-life holiday spirit this year. It comes in the form of warm meals, donated school supplies and handmade hats. Here are five stories that hopefully inspire you to pay forward some holiday cheer this winter. 

Nutty knitting: a hatmaking tradition at Pacific Northwest Ballet

There’s a tradition at Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “Nutcracker” that you won’t see on stage; to find it, you have to go backstage and make your way up some stairs and past rows of brightly patterned costumes hanging on racks. Around a corner, you’ll find a room full of holiday magic: the cavernous studio (used in non-Nut times as a rehearsal space for Seattle Opera) where the young “Nutcracker” cast hangs out when not on stage — about 60 PNB School students per show, aged about 8 to 14. The energy in the room is palpable — young dancers leaping into the air, giggling with their perfectly bunned heads together at a table festooned with Christmas glitter, lining up to get costumes — but some of it gets channeled into something lasting: making knitted hats, to be donated to children in need.

The backstage knitting tradition began in 2011, when two young sisters came up with the idea of making hats on small circular knitting frames, to keep themselves and their castmates occupied backstage. It turned out to be a perfect project: easy to pick up and leave off, simple to learn, nothing messy or spill-able, with a useful end product that helps the community. Lauren Kirchner, student cast coordinator for PNB, said while the young performers aren’t required to participate in the knitting program, most of them do to some extent. “It’s an activity, and a way for us to give back.”

The number of hats completed in a typical year varies — maybe 50 to 150, Kirchner said, with more than 1,000 completed since the program began. In the past, all hats have been donated to Seattle Children’s hospital, but this year the program is expanding to other local organizations as well, such as Mary’s Place. The young dancers often write notes or cards to accompany their donations.

On a recent Saturday matinee, a group of busy knitters — still in their leotards, not yet transformed into soldiers and angels and mice — showed off a rainbow of hats in progress, complete with coordinating pompoms. Fiona, Helen, Jooha, Olivia and Shreya explained that you don’t really make a hat yourself, start to finish; you just pick up and work on whatever’s already underway. (Yarn, currently in a spectacular spiderly tangle in a large box, is donated.) Their fingers flew around the hooks of the knitting frames; it was as if their hands were dancing, leaving warmth behind. 

— Moira Macdonald, arts critic

Volunteers bring holiday gifts, school supplies to refugee kids

In Sammamish, there’s a storage unit that’s sort of like Santa’s workshop. 

A team of volunteers with Grassroot Projects, a group providing resources to undocumented communities, meets weekly at the Eastside storage unit to pack boxes with toys, diapers, clothes, books, car seats, school supplies and specialized groceries, including foods native to their clients’ home countries. 

This year, the organization’s program has served nearly 750 families, including 2,000 kids.  

“We meet the family where their need is,” said Nimisha Goyal, co-founder and vice president of Grassroot Projects in Seattle. “As an organization, we are very intentional on being culturally responsive and addressing the barriers and giving [clients] the freedom of choice and dignity.” 

This holiday season, the organization is continuing its tradition of making personalized care packages for refugee and immigrant families. Grassroot Projects serves children year-round in King County and some parts of Snohomish County. Since 2017, the organization’s Care and Connect program has helped undocumented and refugee families struggling to meet basic needs with material support.

“We call it the ‘Santa Claus of every week,’” Goyal said. “Our volunteers deliver these items to their doorstep. We are helping the families out because we’re not making them run pillar to post.” 

Goyal stressed that delivering these items to families around the holidays is especially important as transportation remains a top concern for Grassroot clients.  

“With these families, there is a huge transportation barrier,” Goyal said. “Transportation becomes really expensive and difficult to access.” 

The group’s holiday care packages benefit immigrants and newly arrived refugees from low-income backgrounds. About 30% of Washington’s population, or 2.3 million people, said they were immigrants or had at least one immigrant parent in a 2021 study with data published by the Current Population Survey. 

Goyal added that children often face the brunt of harsh situations of upheaval like immigration. 

“Most of these families are fleeing really desperate circumstances,” Goyal said. “When the parents are really struggling to put food on the table … they really don’t have the resources for the kids.”

— Tat Bellamy-Walker, communities reporter 

Seattle musicians help raise more than $2 million in 2 weeks

It felt like half of the Northwest music community was crammed onto the Moore Theatre stage last month. Members of some of our region’s biggest bands (including a couple of Rock & Roll Hall of Famers) stood alongside show-stealing up-and-comers, like electro-pop duo Bijoux and singer-songwriter Brittany Davis, for a full-throated grand finale during the annual SMASH benefit concert.

Every year, a ridiculously stacked lineup of local all-stars assembles for a fundraising blowout for the growing nonprofit that provides musicians with various health services. It’s the public-facing result of tireless work of folks like longtime Seattle music players Denise Burnside (SMASH executive director) and Ben London, who helps curate the show and runs an artist-supporting nonprofit of his own in Black Fret.

As members of Pearl Jam, R.E.M., Sleater-Kinney, Death Cab for Cutie and countless behind-the-scenes do-gooders graced the stage that night — not to mention the ticket-buying fans in the seats — it was a stark reminder of how much Seattle music means to the community and how readily that community comes together to help take care of each other, netting around $220,000 for SMASH in the process.

A week after skating through David Bowie’s “Changes” with their old bandmate Josiah Johnson and the ubiquitous Shaina Shepherd at the SMASH show, Matty Gervais and Charity Rose Thielen took the stage again at the Showbox for a fundraiser of their own. Hometown folk-pop heroes The Head and the Heart, who outgrew the venerable springy-floored club years ago, settled into an intimate one-off the group billed as its first annual benefit concert for its Rivers and Roads Foundation. Through the band’s money-distributing nonprofit, proceeds would go toward another local organization, Arts Corps, which works to reduce access barriers to arts education, especially in South Seattle and South King County.

The sentimental show was filled with talk of gratitude for how Seattle shaped and supported The Head and the Heart, even among members who haven’t lived here in years. “I haven’t felt like a Seattle band as much in a long time as I do tonight,” said frontman Jonathan Russell from the Showbox stage, just a salmon toss from where he and his bandmates once busked at Pike Place Market.

And it’s not just music causes that get Seattle talents to plug in their amps. When the out-of-town headliner for the annual SMooCH concert canceled on short notice, a battalion of local luminaries like Seattle popsmith SYML — fresh off a pair of headlining gigs supporting the same cause — rallied to ensure the benevolent show could go on, piecemealing an on-the-fly Beatles tribute. Founded by Pete and Brandy Nordstrom, the event that partners with Sub Pop and KEXP helped raise $1.9 million for the Seattle Children’s uncompensated care fund.

There’s been some recent chatter about the health of Seattle’s music community, but its collective might has certainly been on display this holiday season.

Michael Rietmulder, music writer

Spice Waala provides specialized meals to fight food insecurity

Cooking for someone can be an easy way to show you care — especially cooking for someone with a special diet. It’s easy to do in your own home, preparing a meal that’s vegetarian or sourcing halal meat for a guest. But when you’re food insecure and choosing only what might be available from a food bank or shelter, it’s easy to feel invisible.

It’s something that Aakanksha Sinha and Uttam Mukherjee, owners of the Spice Waala Indian street food restaurants, are hoping to change with their Bhojan Program. As of Dec. 1, the couple has cooked, packaged and given away 31,700 meals since March of 2020.

When the pandemic hit, the couple wanted to help in a tangible way and decided to check in with representatives from Mary’s Place and Community Lunch to “find out what was really needed.” They found a “massive gap” in access to food for people from immigrant communities — people who don’t eat traditional Western food for cultural or religious reasons or only eat a vegan or vegetarian diet.

Their goal was to help close that gap. After a few months of offering meals out of their Capitol Hill location, they saw numbers dwindle and went back to their community partners to see how they could continue to help serve that immigrant community. They found the best solution was to bring the meals to the community they hoped to serve.

Now, nearly every Tuesday, Sinha and Mukherjee cook in their Capitol Hill kitchen, making 50 meals for Community Lunch and 50 meals for Mary’s Place. In 2021, when they added a second Spice Waala location in Ballard, they increased the Bhojan Program by adding another 100 meals delivered to Asian Counseling and Referral Service each week.

Sinha says it’s important to them to keep the program going — even as conversations surrounding food insecurity have quieted after the pandemic initially thrust them into the spotlight. 

“Even when COVID conversations started dying down, unemployment conversations started dying down, hunger is not something that has been reduced.”

Jackie Varriano, food writer

Artist-run mutual aid raises money for families’ holiday meals

The holiday season can be difficult for farmworking families — the offseason brings higher unemployment, and winter break weighs on many who rely on school meals to feed their children.

That’s where WashMasks steps in to help.

An artist-run mutual aid, WashMasks is raising money for its annual Heart of WA food drive and for Alimentando al Pueblo, the country’s only Latino food bank. 

Founded by theater artist Ana María Campoy in 2020, WashMasks distributes face masks to Washington migrant farmworkers and their families. Since those early days of the pandemic, the group’s work has expanded to include relief for wildfires, heat stress, infant care goods, food and more. WashMasks’ 2022 community fundraisers have included a play reading at ArtsWest and an artist market, the proceeds from which were split by WashMasks and Alimentando al Pueblo ($1,500 total so far, or $750 each).

“Both our communities understand hunger and the fear to talk about it,” Campoy said, explaining why she chose this work. “We both understand what it means to be migratory for work, and the inability to set down roots because you have to go where there is work.”

Alimentando al Pueblo will put its half of the funds toward its holiday campaign. More than 200 families will get food boxes, toilet paper and laundry detergent, as well as have live music, champurrado (a warm, Mexican chocolate drink) and pan dulce (Mexican sweet bread) when they visit the distribution site. There are two types of food boxes — one Central American and one Mexican — that include things like masa for tamales, plus rice, beans and other pantry staples. Each box includes a $25 gift certificate so families can purchase meat.

Campoy lauded Alimentando al Pueblo because it provides culturally responsive, traditional food for its community.

“You feel love from the community that is supporting you, not just that they’re helping you get by, you feel truly loved,” Campoy said. “But also, it makes you healthier. There’s all that crazy science that our ancient gut recognizes it, and it is happier and it’s healthier, and that makes a huge difference.”

Grace Gorenflo, arts recovery reporter

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