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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Juvenile Justice Services honors volunteer Birgitta Wood upon her retirement in Salt Lake City Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014.

SALT LAKE CITY — Birgitta Wood knows what it's like to be separated from family.

It happened to her on Nov. 18, 2002, when her son Ronald Wood was suddenly taken from her. Wood, a West Jordan police officer, was shot to death by a teenager who was wanted by police for his alleged involvement in a string of robberies. The boy shot Wood three times then turned the gun on himself.

The Woods reached out to the boy's family shortly thereafter:

"You will never feel anger or animosity from us, because you also lost a son. Someday, we can talk about that," Birgitta Wood wrote in letter read by her daughter at her son's funeral.

That never happened, despite the Woods' attempts to connect with the family. The boy's family has since moved out of state.

But Birgitta Wood eventually found an outlet for her compassion: volunteering with teenagers at Juvenile Justice Services' Salt Lake Observation and Assessment.

On Tuesday, staff and residents of the short-term, structured residential program that provides treatment recommendations to the juvenile court honored Wood for nearly 11 years of teaching children ages 12-18 to crochet hats and scarves. The hats and scarves are then given to charitable organizations such as The Road Home or Primary Children's Hospital. Some of hats and scarves have been given to charities in Iraq.

A few months after her son's death, Wood said she read a Deseret News article about a woman who was teaching young men in custody how to crochet.

"I told my husband, 'I want to be a volunteer,'" she said.

But Blair Wood was initially against it because he had concerns about her safety. He had also opposed his son's initial desire to become a police officer, and his death had affected him profoundly, his daughter DeAnn Bawden said.

But Birgitta was insistent about her desire to work with young people. "I was not about to sit down and mourn like that," she said.

So she channeled her energies into volunteering once a week, spending an hour each with the boys and girls at the juvenile justice center. Even while battling colon cancer and caring for her husband, who had been diagnosed with a different form of cancer around the same time, Birgitta kept her regular appointments with the boys and girls, who stay an average of 45 to 60 days at the facility.

While the center relies on many volunteers, Birgitta's consistency and compassion helps the staff get a better understanding of the young men and women in their care and to make appropriate recommendations to juvenile court judges.

"I think it opens a lot of doors for us," said Scott Campbell, assistant program director in the Division of Juvenile Justice Services.

Birgitta said she, of course, teaches boys and girls to crochet. She has provided most of the yarn herself, although a Wal-Mart store has given her gift cards to purchase yarn from time to time. Her sister scours garage sales for skeins of yarn or knitted or crocheted blankets that are repurposed as hats and scarves.

For the youths, learning to crochet is a means for them to give back and to pay restitution, she said. It is also an opportunity for them to open up to a trusted adult and, hopefully, learn a few life lessons from woman who left Sweden as a young adult with an eighth-grade education but made a point of getting her GED in her 30s.

Growing up in Sweden during World War II, Birgitta and her siblings were sent to live in an orphanage for about three years while her father served in the military and their mother was treated for tuberculosis. Eventually, her mother resumed care of her family.

Although the circumstances are different, Birgitta can relate to youths who have been separated from their families.

Sometimes, she tells the youths about what happened to her son. Other times, she counsels them about their futures.

She tells the young men: "Don't go home and make babies. Go home and get a good education."

There is similar advice for the young women: "You don't need a boyfriend in your life right now. You need an education."

Birgitta is stepping away from her volunteer duties to devote more time to caring for her husband, who has cancer and is in hospice care.

Among the "thank you" gifts given to Birgitta Tuesday were a handmade scarf and giant card signed by the youth.

One girl wrote, "I appreciate you teaching me how to crochet and for being so nice."

Another wrote, "You are a LEGEND!"

One of the teenage girls in the program pulled Birgitta aside to say "Thank you for being here."

Even though Birgitta was the guest of honor Tuesday, she brought chocolate for the staff and clients, said Lisa St. Louis, program coordinator. "That's Birgitta for you."

Reflecting on the past decade, Birgitta said giving back — even as she was going through tough times — was its own reward.

"I learned so much from the kids," she said. "It goes both ways, I hope."

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