They're the first gift a newborn baby gets. Soft, pastel-pretty and handmade with care and kindness by strangers the baby will probably never meet.
But the knitted hats placed on a newborn's head in the delivery room aren't just for show. They serve a vital function: keeping a newborn's body heat stable, particularly crucial during its first 24 to 48 hours.
Which is why Kelly Terris was worried last year when she saw that, for the first time in her 20 years with the Moncton Hospital's maternal newborn unit, the supply of knitted newborn caps had dipped perilously low.
Until that day, she said, supply "had never been an issue."
"People used to just drop them off on the maternity unit. They might be in visiting a friend or in for an appointment themselves."
But COVID-19 had put a stop to that. Visits had been curbed, surgeries had been postponed and the casual donation of hats made by volunteers and brought in to the hospital by patients or their visitors had been completely shut down.
Terris mentioned the predicament in post on Facebook, where she shared the pattern preferred by the IWK Health Centre, a major pediatric hospital in Halifax, and then "just sort of forgot about it."
Isolated knitters sat up and took notice
But the post quickly resonated with knitters and baby-lovers across the province.
It was spring of 2021, about one year into the pandemic. People who were feeling restless and anxious and isolated jumped at the chance to do something useful.
They shared the post with other like-minded friends and soon, dozens of pairs of knitting needles were clicking and dozens of hats — hundreds of hats, in every shade of pastel imaginable — were being made.
"People needed a project," Terris said. "We all need purpose."
The community was bonding and banding together in that special way hard times seem to foster.
And it was about to get even more special.
The stranger in the grocery store
In Hillsborough, about 20 minutes away from Terris's home in southeastern New Brunswick, Gayle Steeves headed out to do her grocery shopping at Sobey's in Riverview.
She had picked up quite a few items, and while she was waiting at the checkout a man got into the line behind her. Steeves noticed he hardly had any items, so she smiled at him and told him to go ahead of her.
After he'd paid for his items, the man turned to Steeves and thanked her. Then he held out a $20 bill.
Steeves hesitated, but the man was insistent.
"Pay it forward," he said.
The surprise gesture stayed with her for days.
"I felt so happy inside," she said. "I thought 'I really want to do something good' ... with this 20 dollars."
She chatted with some friends and neighbours in her apartment building about the stranger's gift, and they tossed around some ideas about how she could pay it forward.
Then Steeves remembered a post someone had shared on Facebook: Terris's newborn hats post with the IWK hat pattern.
Steeves, who had known Terris since she was a childhood friend of her own daughter, was a prolific knitter. She also had a grandchild who was a preemie, and she knew how important those hats were.
"One of [the neighbours] said to me, 'So what are you going to do with that 20 dollars?' " Steeves said. "And I said, 'I think I know.' "
Knitters to the rescue
She told them about the hospital's newborn-hat needs, and said she'd spend the $20 on baby yarn and knit as many hats as she could with it.
That's when Hillsborough Mayor Bob Rochon, who was one of the neighbours she'd been chatting with, reached into his pocket and said, "Here's 20 more dollars."
And then another neighbour said, "Here. Here's another 20 dollars."
"Before I got up to my apartment I probably had ... $80," Steeves said with a laugh.
Steeves went right out and bought a bagful of ultra-soft baby yarn and soon, the powder pink and baby blue toques were stacking up on her dining room table.
"The hats were so darn cute, with the little pom-poms and little buttons on them," Steeves decided to post a photo of them on Facebook and see if she could entice a few others to join the knitting club.
Soon she had more offers than she knew what to do with. Volunteers of all ages wanted to pitch in, either knitting or donating money to pay for more yarn.
"Even one of the girls across the hall from me, she's never knit in her life, she said to me, 'Would you teach me how to knit a baby hat? ... Because I would like to do that.' "
Eventually, Steeves decided it was time to call Terris.
"I've got some hats for you, if you want them," she said.
And by some, she meant hundreds.
'Bombarded' with hats
Terris was surprised and delighted, and jumped at the offer.
Soon, others were calling or arranging to have bags of the hats picked up, or dropping them off on Terris's doorstep. Then Terris would take them in to the hospital, have them all washed at the hospital and readied for fuzzy little newborn heads.
Within mere weeks, the hat supply had gone from meagre to magnificent.
"We were bombarded with hats, it was great," Terris said, noting "our supply is good now."
Who is the 'mystery man'?
For Terris, it was a heartwarming reminder about the power of community, and how good people will always come together for a good cause.
"I don't know how long it takes to knit a hat … but all of our time is precious and valuable," she said. "To think that somebody you don't know has knit this with love and care and skill and talent for my baby – it's really neat."
For Steeves, it was all of that and more.
"The knitting of the hats is a pleasure, I love doing it," she said.
But one thing still nags at her, a puzzle whose solution would make her even happier: finding out the identity of the "mystery man" in the grocery store whose random act of kindness triggered a wave of it.
"I know I'll probably never see him again," Steeves said. "But I think of the man who started all of this with $20, and I hope he knows how much we appreciate him."