Unsung Heroes: 86-year-old knitting for charities

By Phoebe Falconer

To nominate an Unsung Hero for their community service and for terms and conditions go to: www.unsungheroes.org.nz

Lena O'Neill doesn't let blindness in one eye or age stop her from contributing to her community. Photo / Christine Cornege
Lena O'Neill doesn't let blindness in one eye or age stop her from contributing to her community. Photo / Christine Cornege

Knitting can be a challenge at any time - even for those with good eyesight. For 86-year-old Lena O'Neill, blind in one eye and sight fading in the other, it's even more difficult.

But knit she does - for the Red Cross, for the SPCA and for her ever-expanding family.

"People often ask where Mum gets her energy from," says daughter Helen Roberts, who nominated her mother for the New Zealand Herald's Unsung Heroes series.

"I think it's because she keeps so busy. My sisters and brother have watched Mum give and keep on giving all her life. She does things for everyone. I've even seen her hand a bunch of flowers from the garden to a stranger passing by."

The Herald is featuring stories about the wonderful work people do in their communities. Five worthy recipients will be rewarded with a P&O cruise to thank them for making a difference in the lives of their fellow New Zealanders.

Mrs O'Neill has knitted all her life - "I think I learned how before I was born" - and her little coats for dogs have been greatly appreciated by the SPCA.

She collects children's cardigans and jerseys knitted by a group of elderly women in Hamilton, and sews on buttons and labels to make them ready for distribution by the Red Cross.

Acquiring the wool is becoming a problem for Mrs O'Neill and her helpers, as a grant has recently dried up.

"Buttons are another problem, sometimes we only get two of a kind. But in a stripey jersey that doesn't really matter."

She also knits for the baby unit at Waikato Hospital and, until the end of last year, enjoyed working in the Red Cross shop in Hamilton.

Mrs O'Neill's garden provides vegetables to give away and fruit for jam.

"I'm not really a great gardener, but someone has to do it."

And despite all this activity, she still has time to go square-dancing every week.

"But I'm not the oldest - one of the ladies is 92. We don't get many men, though, I think they're too chicken."

Mrs O'Neill's next project is a knitted shawl for another great-grandchild - her 24th.

Helen Roberts says her family are grateful for the example Mrs O'Neill has set. "She's our inspiration."

Phone Mrs O'Neill on (07) 855-4364 if you can help with donations of wool (double knitting or 8-ply only please) and buttons, or if you're interested in joining the Hamilton and Nawton square-dancers.

The Unsung Community Heroes series is run annually in the The Herald and on nzherald.co.nz in partnership with P&O Cruises. We invited nominations from readers to recognise people who selflessly work to make a difference in their local communities.

Some will be selected to feature in the paper and on nzherald.co.nz. Five will be chosen to join a P&O winter cruise.

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