A charity in Port Elgin is having the best kind of problem as it works to keep up with orders for its one-of-a-kind mittens. 

The fleece and wool mittens are completely made out of recycled sweaters and material. But not only do the warm, wooly mitts cut down on garbage, they also provide part-time employment for seven people in the rural area and help fund programs like the PEDVAC food bank, hot lunches for kids and literacy programs in the village of about 400 people.

"They are a fabulous quality item," said Wool to Wishes co-ordinator ​Cheryl Harrison. "I hand check every pair. And the proceeds — it just helps so many people." 

Harrison's perfectly colour co-ordinated room is stacked neatly with hundreds of previously owned sweaters. She runs the program in the basement of a former Catholic school owned by the Port Elgin Voluntary Action Council (PEDVAC).

Harrison's enthusiasm shines through when she talks about the mittens and the affect the program has on the community. She took on the job as co-ordinator after she retired from her career as a collections manager.

PEDVAC Mittens

Wool to Wishes mittens are made form all recycled material. The outer layer is wool from sweaters donated to or bought by the PEDVAC Foundation. The inside layer is made of donated fleece. (Tori Weldon/CBC)

"I wish I'd found it years before," she said.

"It's opposite end of the scale, it's almost like I'd found the niche." 

Valerie Kaulback shares Harrison's enthusiasm. She started as a mitten cutter three and a half years ago. Kaulback appreciates the income and that she can work from her home near Murray Corner, but her favourite part is getting a fresh bag of brightly coloured sweaters to cut up, describing it as a shot of adrenaline.

"Oh colours, I love colours," she said.

Cheryl Harrison

Cheryl Harrison is the co-ordinator of Wool to Wishes at the PEDVAC Foundation. The registered charity runs the Port Elgin food bank, an affordable secondhand boutique and a hot lunch service and literacy programs, to name a few. The proceeds from the mittens employ seven people and help fund the foundation's programs. (Tori Weldon/CBC)

Kaulback gets to decide which patterns and solids go together best, a job that bleeds into her personal life.

"When someone is walking around with a wool shirt, my God we look at that (and say), 'My God that would make a nice mitt,'" she said with a laugh. 

"I just go maybe twice a month, three times a month, pick up my bag, come home sort them out and start cutting."

Mittens give purpose

Kaulback found this job after struggling to find work in the rural communities along the Northumberland Strait. Shortly after she began volunteering at the food bank in Port Elgin, she got the call.

"So I started that and I never stopped."

But life before mitten making wasn't an easy one. Kaulback said she struggled with drugs. Even after getting clean, it took time for her to find her place in the world again.

PEDVAC mitten

Valerie Kaulback works from home cutting old wool sweaters into pieces that will make one-of-a-kind mittens. The mitten proceeds fund programs in Port Elgin that help feed and support the small community. (Pierre Fournier/CBC)

 "I was too shy to go around people, but once I started (at PEDVAC)... I can stand up and talk to anybody."

The mittens are sold in 25 stores across Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and a few in Ontario. PEDVAC volunteers also take them to craft sales. Kaulback said they're a hit.

"People picking them up and looking at them can't believe they're made of shirts. Oh, it's a wonderful feeling."

According to Harrison, Wool to Wishes is set to break a record this year selling more mittens than ever before. She set a goal of selling 2,000 mittens this year, and if 80 are purchased before March, the group will meet the mark. But Harrison says more sweaters are needed if they're going to fill all their orders and break the record. 

"At one point this fall it was a two-week waiting period for the mittens. It was fabulous, really."

PEDVAC is accepting donations of sweaters and volunteer hours.