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Weaving Success

March 26, 2022
Basket-weaving shop raising awareness for people with disabilities

By Carly Newton of the Press-Republican
Riesa Warren (right) helps a participant in the basket-weaving class. Warren, because of her weaving skills, was nicknamed “high-speed underwater basket weaver” by her brother. She has made over 1,800 baskets since the Basket Weavers Guild Program began in 2008. She said people are often surprised to learn who makes the baskets.
Baskets made by the Basket Weaver’s Guild are shown for sale at Mountain Weavers’ Farm Store
Assistant Director for Community and Staff Relations for Mountain Lakes Services Elizabeth Rutkowski (from left), Senior Director of Supported Employment and Community Services for Mountain Lakes Services Steve Lewis, basket weaver Riesa Warren, and Basket Weaver’s Guild Program Manager Andrea Connor gather for a photo in the basket-weaving workshop.

PORT HENRY — Basket weaving is bringing one North Country community together.

Mountain Weavers’ Farm Store, run by Essex County’s Mountain Lakes Services, and located at 4322 Main Street in downtown Port Henry, is helping change local perspectives of individuals with disabilities through their Basket Weavers Guild Program.

The program, managed by Andrea Connor, recently made basket-weaving classes available to the public twice a month and are being taught by Riesa Warren, an individual receiving services from Mountain Lakes Services.

With March being Developmental Disability Awareness Month, Connor said it’s especially important now to continue educating the public on individuals with disabilities. “Traditionally, when you mention someone with a disability, people think, ‘what is the deficit? What can’t they do?’ And the fact is, they can do just about anything,” Connor said. “A lot of times, they never had that opportunity before, and they will absolutely amaze you and surprise you — specifically in teaching classes.”

The basket-weaving classes, which began in February, have had a lot of support from the community so far — with the first month selling out in 36 hours. Currently, they’re only offering an introductory class for $25 that takes about two and a half hours to complete, with a maximum of six people allowed for each session. Connor said they will begin offering more advanced classes as more people get through the introductory level. “All baskets, other than this basic one, take a lot longer,” she said. “The response has been overwhelming. Every single person in attendance asked, ‘what was next? When could they come back?”

Warren, because of her weaving skills, was nicknamed “high speed underwater basket weaver” by her brother. She has made over 1,800 baskets since the Basket Weavers Guild Program began in 2008. She said people are often surprised to learn who makes the baskets. “I like going out in the summer and doing craft fairs and farmers markets. Some people’s jaws drop when I tell them they’re made by people with developmental disabilities,” Warren said. “I’ve overcome a lot. I had a stroke when I was 14 months old and from that, it damaged part of my brain, and I couldn’t put things together like reading.”

Despite the hardships she has been through, Warren had a natural talent for basket-weaving. Her baskets, along with other weavers’ baskets, have been popular locally, as well as nationally. Parcels, a retail store in Massachusetts run by Northeast ARC Gifts, spent over $1,000 ordering baskets from the Guild last year and this year. “We’ve had a lot of stores ask for our baskets, but in the last two years, we have not been able to keep up with demand,” Connor said. “There are more people that want baskets than baskets that exist.”

Along with the basket-weaving classes, Mountain Weavers’ Farm Store offers plenty of other opportunities for the community to engage with individuals receiving services from Mountain Lakes Services. The Basket Weavers Guild also runs the grocery section of the store by working the cash register and all other customer service aspects of it.

Executive Director for Mountain Lakes Services Jack Mudge said this provides many opportunities for community engagement. “We really wanted to go deeper into helping our participants meet their goals and dreams so they can live their very best lives, but at the same time, in order to do that, we needed to engage the community,” Mudge said. “A lot of times people with disabilities get boxed in and the community doesn’t really engage with them. We want to break that and have them much more valued in the community.” Steve Lewis, senior director of Supported Employment and Community Services for Mountain Lakes Services, also reiterated how important Mountain Weavers’ Farm Store is for everyone involved.

“We have our hands in every single thing we can possibly find in order to meet the needs of the people we’re supporting and their wishes and desires,” Lewis said. “It just improves their lives and gives them a sense of purpose — it gives them the opportunity to have relationships.”