Sock Monkeys and Fiberglass Cows: One Volunteer's Commitment to Service

After decades crafting sock monkeys for pediatric patients at UNC Hospitals, Nidia Scharlock was honored in November with a ceremony at the Ronald McDonald House of Chapel Hill and the dedication of a cow named Mookie.

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Nidia and the Monkeys
Nidia Scharlock has made over 1,400 sock monkeys for the NC Children's Hospital since 1992.)
 Sock monkeys are a tradition at UNC Hospitals that reach back to 1962, when a group of women began crafting the monkeys to give to children admitted to N.C. Memorial Hospital.  Nidia Scharlock has been crafting these monkeys since 1992.

“I did the math once,” she says, “and I think I’ve made over 1,400 monkeys.”

It’s no longer possible to give these handmade toys to every child at N.C. Children’s Hospital, but for the children who receive them, they can be a comforting presence in what can be a distressing environment.

The sock monkeys are given to pediatric inpatients by child life staff, says Beth Bailey, a child life specialist in the Children’s Hospital. The monkeys can be used both to build a rapport with the child and serve as a teaching tool, helping children understand why they are in the hospital and preparing them for some of the medical encounters they will experience.

“If a child needs to have an IV placed, then the child life specialist will gather the medical materials used for such an encounter and show the patient on the monkey the steps for an IV placement while talking about some of the sensations they may experience. The monkey gives the child something with which to identify,” says Bailey.

Nidia and her “monkey ladies” create an average of 300 monkeys every year. UNC Hospitals Volunteer Association provides the monkey ladies with the resources to purchase the socks, which then need to be precisely cut and stitched by a small group of experienced sewers who volunteer their time every week to the effort.

Though the bodies need to be double-stitched on a machine to be durable enough to endure years of a child’s affection, most of the cutting and stitching on the monkeys is done by hand. It is a time-consuming and labor-intensive process to turn just one pair of Rockford Red Heel socks into a monkey, but a dedication to good works is something that has defined Nidia since her youngest years.

A Lifetime of Service

Born in New York during the Depression, the importance of compassionate service was instilled in Nidia from an early age. “We were raised on the Golden Rule – you treat other people how you want to be treated,” she says.

After receiving her master’s at 21 in clinical psychology, she moved with her husband to Chicago where he had taken a job. “We moved to Hyde Park, which at the time was one of the few areas of the city that was integrated.”

Nidia credits her time in Hyde Park for focusing her attention on helping to solve the problems of the world. “From my youngest years, I’ve had this kind of sensibility, but my time in Chicago really focused it.”

Her children attended the integrated Freedom Schools, she marched in the streets, she demonstrated in Chicago Public School’s superintendent’s office to fight segregation among district teachers. Shortly before she moved away from Chicago, she marched with Martin Luther King Jr. down Michigan Avenue in a demonstration that was part of the Chicago Freedom Movement.

After moving back to New York in 1965, Nidia pursued a second master’s degree, this one in library sciences.

After completing her degree she took a job at the University of Rochester where she worked for eight years, but when her youngest child graduated high school in 1980 she decided she wanted a change. She found a listing at UNC Health Sciences Library and was attracted immediately by the mission of service the institution represented.

“North Carolina had this fantastic library cooperative system between Duke, NC State, all the research libraries in Research Triangle Park, the librarians at Ft. Bragg, they all worked together and helped each other. But the Health Sciences Library at UNC was the biggest and it was, like UNC Hospital, committed to serving the people of North Carolina,” she says.

Through her position at the University, Nidia learned the Ronald McDonald House (RMH) was looking for a site in Chapel Hill and knew that she would like to volunteer at the House. Nidia has been an RMH volunteer since their doors opened in April of 1988. 

A Surprise at the Ronald McDonald House

Nidia at dedication ceremony
Photo provided by UNC Hospitals Volunteer Services
 When Nidia arrived at the Ronald McDonald House the morning of Nov. 10th, 2015, she thought it was for a training session with new volunteers. Nidia has trained close to half of the house’s volunteers over the decades.

What she found instead was a celebration in her honor, recognizing her for her years of service to the House and dedicating an eight foot long fiberglass cow named Mookie. The cow sculpture was initially sponsored by the UNC Volunteer Association and painted to resemble a sock monkey as part of the CowParade North Carolina 2012, a public art exhibition and fundraiser that benefited the Children’s Hospital.

Nidia has served on the Volunteer Association’s finance committee for the past 12 years, says Linda Bowles, director of UNC Volunteer Services, and according to her, it was Nidia who got the committee involved with the CowParade fundraiser. “The rest, as they say, is history.”

Nidia RMH plaque
Photo provided by UNC Hosptials Volunteer Services
 Mookie, recently moved from UNC Hospitals to her permanent pasture in the courtyard next to the House's recently opened expansion, now features a plaque recognizing Nidia’s contribution to Ronald McDonald House. Cathy Hall, director of volunteer services at the House, lauds Nidia’s commitment to service.

“Nidia has been one of the cornerstones of our volunteer program here at the Ronald McDonald House of Chapel Hill.  She has served more hours than any other volunteer.  She does all of her work with a great deal of heart and care, and we consider ourselves more than lucky to have had her as a volunteer,” she says.   

A Lasting Impact

Nidia got involved with the monkey ladies in 1992 after she answered a notice in the paper looking for experienced sewers. She has been in charge of the group for the past eight years, taking care of ordering supplies, teaching new sewers and performing quality control on the finished monkeys. “Nidia’s famous line is ‘you have to make sure there are no pins left in them and that nothing can be torn off,’” says Bowles.

The monkeys endure not only as a tradition at the Children’s Hospital but as meaningful objects that can last for decades, as Nidia found out while pursuing another of her service project: an informal knitting group that meets weekly at the Chapel Hill Public Library to knit caps for children in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

It was at the library that Nidia met a young woman who would sometimes crochet alongside the group while getting to know them. One day, when Nidia had brought a monkey in to show folks who were interested, the young woman told Nidia she had been given one when she was a patient at the Children’s Hospital.

“She had just had her 26th birthday,” says Nidia. “I asked her when she got her monkey and she said, ‘three…but it’s a little bit ripped.’” Nidia repaired the torn seam and put a fresh ribbon on the 23-year-old sock monkey.

During Nidia’s decades volunteering, she has been witness to some major milestones for UNC Hospitals. Bowles recalls Nidia’s participation in the opening of the Children’s Hospital in 2002. “Nidia and several other sewers went to each new room in the Children’s Hospital and put a sock monkey on every bed to welcome the new patients.”

Bowles describes Nidia as a golden volunteer. “She has a strong sense of responsibility to help children and their families.”

Admirable as Nidia’s service has been, Nidia celebrates the children she is privileged to serve. “I have seen some of the sickest children you could imagine,” she says, “and they are some of the bravest people in the world. These kids are just amazing.”

To find out about volunteering opportunities at UNC Hospitals, visit the Volunteer Services website or call them at 984-974-4793.

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