The 14 handmade scarves were a mystery.
Ten years ago, they appeared around the necks of famous statues in Ottawa on a chilly January day. Each scarf was tagged with a note that read: “I am not lost! If you are stuck out in the cold, take this scarf to keep warm.” It was later revealed that a few university students were behind the good deed.
The incident went viral, and is part of a movement now known as “scarf bombing” - leaving handmade scarves in public places to warm people up during the winter months. The scarves are typically tied around fences, benches and railings, and are especially intended to support those experiencing homelessness.
While the Ottawa scarf bombing was the first to go big online, the phenomenon had already arrived in other places, including Winnipeg.
The scarf bombing movement has spread across Canada and the United States - including in Maryland, Virginia, Iowa, New York City, the Twin Cities and Jacksonville, Fla.
“Most of us are doing it because that one person did,” said Michelle Chance-Sangthong, who saw the Ottawa story online in 2014 and started scarf bombing in Jacksonville. She created a Facebook group called Scarf Bomb Jax and has recruited dozens of volunteers over the past decade. They range in age from their teens to their 80s.
Although Jacksonville has comparatively warm winters, temperatures can dip into the mid 40s.
“It is a misconception that it’s not cold here,” said Chance-Sangthong, 56. “If you’re sleeping outside, it is.”
Throughout the winter, Chance-Sangthong and a group of volunteers regularly do scarf bombs (they also leave out hats, gloves, jackets and blankets), in areas with the greatest need. Most of the items they distribute are handmade.
So far this season, they have done 15 scarf bombs and have donated more than 1,600 pieces of warm clothing.
“I am still blown away and amazed by all the work people put into making this possible,” Chance-Sangthong said.
Suzanne Volpe feels the same way about her own group of dedicated volunteers. A friend of hers in New London, Conn., started scarf bombing in her community in 2014, and as a crochet enthusiast, “I said, ‘Gee, somebody should do that here.’”
“I took up the challenge,” said Volpe, 71, who lives in Pittsburgh.
She started a Facebook group called Scarf Bombardiers, which has more than 1,700 members. People often donate yarn, and about 20 regular volunteers crochet scarves for strangers year-round. Throughout the winter, they regularly drop them off in various spots around the city on frigid days. They leave tags on them that say: “Cold? Take this.”
“I try to put them where there’s foot traffic,” said Volpe, adding that the scarves are usually taken in less than 24 hours.
Volpe - who always keeps a bag of scarves in her car in case she spots someone in need - has enjoyed watching her project evolve over the years.
“I get more and more people involved every year, which is great,” said Volpe, who is retired. “I just love every part of it. I love making them; I love putting them out, and I love getting the responses.”
In addition to providing some warmth, Volpe said, the handmade scarves serve as a needed reminder to people that “somebody cares about them.”
Volpe is always delighted to hear of other scarf bombing efforts elsewhere.
“I love seeing it spread,” she said.
Another group based in Lancaster, Pa., for instance, scarf bombs monthly during the winter.
“I worked for almost a decade in drug and alcohol treatment, so I was aware of people in need,” said Angelia Reed, 52, who led her first scarf bomb in 2015.
She started an organization called The Wrap Up Project, which collects donations of handmade scarves. Reed and a growing group of volunteers distribute them in Lancaster and Columbia, Pa.
“Knitters and crocheters love to make things for people who need them and will use them,” Reed said.
Michelle Christensen, who lives in Golden Valley, Minn., has been keeping the Twin Cities stocked with scarves since 2016.
It began after she decided to collect her old winter gear to bring to local shelters and wrote a Facebook post asking if anyone wanted to contribute.
“It completely blew up,” said Christensen, 53, noting that she collected 100 bags of donations that first year.
She ended up orchestrating a scarf bomb event. Christensen amassed a crew of volunteers, and they strung the donated clothing around two parks - one in Saint Paul and one in Minneapolis.
“I never expected it to be a thing,” Christensen said. “I was stunned by the response.”
She then started an organization called One Good Deed, which hosts a good-deed event every month in the Twin Cities. Christensen recently held her seventh consecutive scarf bomb, which is One Good Deed’s flagship event.
“We started doing it on a smaller scale, and now it’s morphed into a much bigger thing,” she said.
This season’s scarf bomb was on Jan. 7. Christensen and more than 100 volunteers visited four parks - two in Saint Paul and two in Minneapolis - and distributed 535 bags full of scarves, hats, mittens and other winter wear.
“I will often say to our volunteers, ‘the bigger the pebble we put in the pond, the bigger the ripple,’” Christensen said.