Wrapped up in giving: Couple’s hangers decorated with skill, love become gifts
"One man's trash is another man's treasure," as they say, and some folks make it their mission to share their treasures with others.
"The era that they grew up in, they were used to recycling and using what they had," said LeAnn Moe of Alexandria while visiting with her parents at Avera Brady Assisted Living recently.
Vernon and LaVerna Neugebauer, 89 and 85, respectively, moved to the facility in late 2017 after eight years at Crystal Manor. They moved there from rural Dimock, where Vernon was born, and together they raised their daughter and four sons.
In their younger years, Vernon was a farmer, and LaVerna tended the family home and worked on various crafts to pass the time, decorate their home and treat loved ones. Following Vernon's first stroke in 2002, however, he found a need to keep himself busy, too. While his wife crocheted rugs from plastic grocery bags, the aging farmer turned baling twine into his own rugs.
Repurposing items comes naturally to the Neugebauers, who are children of the Great Depression.
"My parents and grandparents ... couldn't throw anything away, because then they didn't have anything. And you kind of grow up and keep that (mentality)," LaVerna said, sharing that she always re-used envelopes for grocery lists and tucked her coupons inside one when she headed to the store.
LaVerna's love of crafting came from her childhood. She was just 10 when her mother fell ill, and LaVerna took over many of the household duties of the day while her mother crafted to keep herself busy. Years later, her father, too, became sick, and LaVerna took on caring for her siblings as well. At age 17, she met the soldier who would become her husband four years later, after returning from the Korean War. Now almost 65 years into the marriage, LaVerna delights in sharing her pastime with the love of her life.
"They moved to town after Mom got sick. Because their basic needs are taken care of at the assisted living, Mom is able to go back to the role that she is used to — taking care of him," LeAnn said, "and it's allowed them to continue to work together, just as they have all these years. The crafting has been a real blessing for them both. I know it gives her great joy to share this with him."
After they moved to town, the Neugebauers wanted to keep their hands and minds busy, but knew the size of their projects would need to decrease due to space constraints.
As she looked around at decades of possessions set out for sale in 2010, LaVerna wondered what could be done with three garbage sacks of wire hangers. She brought them inside, and Vernon "fiddled around with them," inspired by the crochet work his uncle had done on them in his own retirement. Soon, he was wrapping hangers in yarn.
Now, more than 6,500 have been wrapped, and all but about 100 have been given away.
"We share them, because I don't want them all in my room," LaVerna said.
Each gifted hanger is documented in a notebook the couple keeps in their apartment. Many have been given to those who donate yarn and hangers. Others are given to those who visit them at the assisted living facility.
"Every one that goes out, he knows where they go," LaVerna said of her husband, whose face lights up when the hangers and their other crafts are discussed.
When they stayed at the Avera Brady nursing home for LaVerna to recover from knee surgery last year, they worked together to wind strips of yarn around 160 hangers over the course of five weeks, leaving behind two hangers for each resident and giving the rest to the nurses.
"I never used to help him, but one day he asked," said LaVerna, explaining how she got involved. Mostly, she helps with quality control, making sure Vernon's loops stay tight enough on the hanger to prevent them from coming apart.
"Sometimes he gets agitated, but I get that," she said. "I always tell him to do what he can. I can't expect him to make it perfect, because he's just not that way."
"I like it," said Vernon, whose speech is difficult these days, due to a series of strokes over the years, including two already this year.
But, thanks to the sort of homemade therapy of his crafting, Vernon's mind and body have stayed busy, which his wife credits with keeping both of them active and sharp.
"With arthritis ... if you don't keep yourself going, you could end up in a wheelchair, but if you keep your mind going and your hands going, it helps you," LaVerna said.
Every day, the Neugebauers do at least a few hangers so they can feel like they've accomplished something. Despite the amount of time they invest into their projects, the Neugebauers offer their wares only as gifts.
"Why would we (charge)?" LaVerna asked. "The hangers come in. The yarn comes in. ... So there's really not anything we have to buy, so we don't feel like we should."
But some people won't take any without payment. Instead, though, they'd rather give to the givers by giving back hangers.
Just like their donors, whose hangers are embellished and then returned, the Neugebauers' investment in the project has been multiplied.
They've invested just $5 into the project so far. A few years ago, they bought a box at a rummage sale that was said to contain five skeins of yarn. When they opened it at home, they were delighted to find 35.
"It's gambling," LaVerna said, likening the pastime to farming.
When they start to worry that the necessary supplies are running low, a surprise gift shows up just in time. Just before Christmas, more than 200 hangers showed up.
"They just kept coming and coming," LaVerna said, and Vernon worried they'd have too many.
But it wasn't long before they wanted more — and then an anonymous donation of 300 showed up at the assisted living center's main office.
Vernon was frustrated, his wife said, because he couldn't thank the donor and repay them with a few wrapped hangers.
But they pay their talents forward in other ways, too. Together, they help cut grocery bags into strips that others knit into sleeping mats for the homeless. LaVerna embellishes funeral folders for friends and acquaintances to keep as mementoes of their loved ones' lives and creates scrapbooks from magazines and calendars that she hands out to children at church each week and shares with other youngsters they encounter. And each resident at Avera Brady Assisted Living receives a doily made of scraps from old clothing turned into circles, along with a handful of hangers, for their birthday.
"My parents have always set a steady example for us five kids that you live within your means, make the most of what you have, and make sure you have a little left to give away to others, even if that means that you give up a few of your own wants," LeAnn said.