A Close-Knit Community: Rogers Park Resident Starts ‘500 Hats for Refugees’

The Rogers Park resident of 52 years said she got the idea to start the “500 Hats for Refugees” initiative after watching local news coverage of migrants arriving in the city.

Amidst bitter wind chill and a record-breaking cold stretch, Margie Chan packed hundreds of both handmade and donated hats, knitting supplies and hot chocolate ingredients into two friends’ cars.

Although local weather advisories suggested people stay inside, Chan was bound for the Edgewater branch of the Chicago Public Library. With aims of providing hats to local migrants, her “Hats and Hot Chocolate” pop-up prevailed — even on a day of record-breaking cold. The event is part of Chan’s broader initiative toward migrant relief, which she called “500 Hats for Refugees.”

Chan said the group has currently collected a total of 2,175 hats. 

“Every horizontal surface in my living room has a hat on it,” Chan said. “Including the floor.”

The Rogers Park resident of 52 years said she got the idea to start the “500 Hats for Refugees” initiative after watching local news coverage of migrants arriving in the city. As a child of refugees from Hong Kong, Chan said she was “struck” by how the city was responding to the migrant crisis.

“The way it was being done was really with no regard to the fact that these are human beings,” Chan said.

Chan’s house has been overtaken by a plethora of donations from all over the country. (Allison Treanor / The Phoenix)

As a lifelong Chicagoan, Chan said she knew the migrants’ situation was only going to worsen as the harsh winter continued. Since August 2022, over 35,000 migrants and asylum seekers have arrived in Chicago from the southern border, many living in temporary shelters, according to the city of Chicago.

Intending to garner online support for the initiative, Chan said she posted to various knitting and charity groups while also approaching local yarn shops and public libraries with her own flyers. Soon afterwards, she started receiving hats from all over the country. 

“One person in Colorado sent me 70 hats, it’s amazing,” Chan said. “People in Hawaii, Colorado, Texas, Florida — places I never would have thought.”

Most recently, Chan said she received hats from a collective of donors in Canada.

Her first pop-up was at the Edgewater branch of the Chicago Public Library, with following events at locations from North Park University to Haugan Elementary School.

Chan said she hopes to host an event at Ogden Elementary School in the Loop, where her two eldest brothers first went to school upon their arrival in America.

Having immigrated to America when they were young, Chan said her brothers were unaccustomed to English or American culture. They both graduated as high school valedictorians with full scholarships to the University of Chicago, Chan said. 

“You don’t know what the potential is,” Chan said. “One of these kids could be holding the key to Alzheimer’s, and all they need is a chance.”

One knitter who participated in the Jan. 14 Rogers Park pop-up is Patricia Gonzalez, a five-year Rogers Park resident who has donated four hats to the project so far. 

“I’m always knitting things, not necessarily knowing what I’m going to do with them,” Gonzalez said. “But here’s somebody who needs what you’re making, and here’s somebody who’s willing to find those people and take [what you’ve made].”

Although only six to seven people showed up to receive hats due to the cold, Gonzalez said she still enjoyed the experience of knitting alongside her neighbors.

 “This is something that you’re enthusiastic about doing, that you pour your love into,” Gonzalez said. “That love goes into this object, and that object goes to a person who can use it. It’s the perfect meeting of intentions.”

Katie Gruning, another Rogers Park local, said she heard about the project through the Refugee Community Connections Facebook group and also attended the Rogers Park pop-up. She said she estimates she has donated about 40 hats.

Chan’s idea for the initiative stemmed from being dissatisfied by how Chicago was receiving migrants. (Allison Treanor / The Phoenix)

“I was like, ‘Oh great, I love making hats — I can donate some,’” Gruning said. “So I’ve donated a few, and I just keep making them because they’re really fun to make. I love that they’re going to someone who could use them.”

Gruning said the hats are not only for migrants. Rather, anyone in need within the community can get one. 

Chan said the connections built through “500 Hats for Refugees” have been re-energizing. The mom of a member within the Rogers Park Stitchers Facebook group bought four cases of cups for hot chocolate. A former boss bought a coffee percolator. Someone she’d never met on Facebook connected her to news outlets to help spread the message. 

“I’ve met so many interesting and really good people,” Chan said.

Chan said she finds purpose in the project and is moved by the generosity she’s seen stem from it. 

“What really amazes me is the incredible quality of the hats I’m receiving,” Chan said. “If you’re a knitter or not, you can feel and see the care.”

Admiring the time and care spent making each hat unique, Chan said she hopes recipients feel recognized and appreciated. 

“I hope it makes them feel that someone cares, even for just 10 minutes,” Chan said. “It’s all worth it.” 

The next “Hats and Hot Chocolate” will be Feb. 17 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Legler Regional Library. A future event at Morton School of Excellence is also planned, according to Chan.

“It’s a little bit of a stone in the pond,” Chan said, “And maybe we’ll create some ripples.”

Chan can be reached at [email protected] by those interested in contributing to her project.

Featured image taken by Allison Treanor / The Phoenix.

Allison Treanor

Allison Treanor