By W James
It was Christmas. A little 10 year-old-girl eagerly await- ed her gifts. There were boxes of all shapes and sizes under the lights that illuminated the Christmas tree. The girl scans each of the presents trying to guess what was is in each box. One gift caught her eye above all the rest. It was a circular shaped present with little knobs poking up from its base. Finally, she was able to open it and stared at it with a puzzled look; it was a knitting loom. Unbeknownst to this little girl at the time, that Christmas gift would shape her destiny and send her where few people her age have ever gone.
Natalie Barton is a student at Florida Southern College. She goes from class, to sorority events, to campus ministries, to being a resident advisor to hanging out with friends and repeat it all day every day. She is humble about the activities and successes she has earned on campus and even more humble about her most crowning achievement, which wasn’t something that happened at FSC. It happened 10 years ago, when as a little girl she woke up on Christmas morning to a knitting loom. This knitting loom was the final success after years of her Mom trying to get her into knitting.
“I would always joke that my mom would knit a prayer shawl for any- one…and she wanted to instill this talent into me,” Natalie said when talking about her mom’s hobby.
Her mom’s plan worked and Natalie was hooked on knitting. Using the loom, Natalie would knit little hats for babies. She had about 30 of them made and wanted to give them away. She tried hospitals but they had very specific criteria when accepting hat donations. Then the earthquake in Haiti happened.
“That was the first natural disaster that I was fully aware of happening. I remember looking on the TV every night and waiting for updates. I remember seeing the buildings that had been destroyed and the little children, my heart just broke for them.”
Amidst all this personal grief for those living in Haiti, a newspaper arrived at Natalie’s home.
“We read this front page article one day about this guy who does these water purification systems and sends them to foreign countries, and one of the places he went was Haiti. My mom was like ‘You need to get in touch with this guy.’ He was the first opportunity to come to me.” Natalie said.
The man’s name was Joe Hurston, the head of a non-profit called Air Mobile Ministries, which helps give purified water to countries that suffer from natural disasters. Natalie didn’t take to her mother’s advice right away, but eventually reached out to Hurston and he was ecstatic.
“He was so enthusiastic. He said the people of Haiti were going to love it (the caps she made) because when babies are born there they are not given the little cap and the blanket and whole shebang. He said that they don’t have pictures or memories but they would keep these little hats and tell their kids, ‘Hey you wore this,” Natalie explained.
The once little girl eager on Christmas morning quickly grew up. Her drive and will to make other people happy had only grown. She wanted to expand but she was only one person. As an individual, you can only do so much, but strength lies in numbers. When going into high school, she started a club. The club was called Caring Caps. Natalie taught her peers about the knitting process, but it was hard being just one person trying to teach all of her friends to knit; that’s when she started her YouTube channel.
As Caring Caps began to expand, personal tragedy struck. Natalie’s dad left the family.
“Two years prior he had an affair in the marriage, so they went through couples counseling. Then another year continued on, and I noticed that everything around the house was getting better. The summer between my freshmen and sophomore year, my father literally sat us down (they had been married for 24 years) at the table. He said ‘Ya know, the life I had here wasn’t what I had envisioned. I’m going to be moving out soon and kinda’ lookin’ for something else.’ The divorce hit us hard financially; my mom was a stay at home mom when he left, so I then really didn’t have the financial resources to fund Caring Caps.”
In the span of a second, everything that was guaran- teed in her life was gone. The little girl became an adult, whether she was ready to or not. Sure, she had made adult decisions while running her charity, but this launch into adulthood was different. She used it as a motivator to make Caring Caps better even though financial realities were bleak.
“In a weird way, I took out all my angst, and it became this thing to my father like ‘ya know what? Look how successful I am without you’.”
Despite this family turmoil was going on in her life, Caring Caps was on the rise.
“The second meeting of sophomore year we had like 40 people join. We did our meetings in the morning before school started at 8:40 a.m., so we would meet at 8. I would go there, set up at 7:45, and then people started to just keep coming in and I was like ‘Oh my gosh, I wasn’t expecting this,’ Natalie recalled.
Not only did the YouTube channel bring the students into the actual club, but it also gained traction in other states as well.
“Then people started reaching out to me across the country saying. ‘Hey, how can I help?’ That’s when I started installing branched. I didn’t expect people to reach out to me and say ‘I want to help’.”
After a year had gone by, Caring Caps had become an official 501 (c) 3 non-profit charity and had grown to hundreds of different branches across the nation. After only a year, Caring Caps had grown from just caps for babies, to blankets and toys for children of all ages. Though Natalie was thrilled by the growth in Caring Caps, she longed to visit the places where the items were going. Then opportunity knocked.
“I had the opportunity to go with a local church that wasn’t even my church in my community. Then spring break of my junior year, we went to Haiti.”
While in Haiti, Natalie brought 50 hats and a couple of blankets and teddy bears. However, during the en- tire week, she didn’t get the opportu- nity to give out any of the hats, until the final day when the group went to Grace Children’s Hospital. This hospital was still under construction since the earthquake years ago. The equipment was inferior compared to the first world machines she was used to. During the tour of the hospi- tal, the final stop was a station with five to six baby cribs in the center of a large room.
It was in that hospital room that Natalie gave out her hats. There was a smile from ear to ear on young Natalie’s face. The knitting loom, getting this business started, being abandoned by her father and dealing with financial uncertainty had all led to this moment of giving these kids not just a cap, but a piece of Natalie and the fulfillment of her dream as well. The few pastors in the group got in a circle and prayed around the cribs.
All the years of hardship became distant on this mis- sion trip, with strangers, in a foreign country into which she poured her life’s work. It was there, surrounded by the children, that Natalie Barton’s work towards Caring Caps became worth it.
“People talk about God talking to them, and I never ex- perienced that in my life. This is the only time I got this message of this is where you are supposed to be. I started balling in front of all these kids.”