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The power of Sheila Shawls
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Megan Fischer, 27, graduated with honors from a culinary program and her mother says she landed her "dream job." She was killed by a man also in the program. (MPR Photo/Greta Cunningham)
Two years ago -- October 25, 2002 -- Sen. Paul Wellstone, his wife Shelia, his daughter and five others died in a plane crash in northeastern Minnesota. Since their sudden death, friends of the Wellstones have been working to make sure their legacy stays alive. Paul and Shelia were known for their work protecting women from violence. Friends of the couple say it was Shelia's urging that prompted Paul Wellstone to become a key Senate leader in crafting the Violence Against Women Act. A program to bring comfort to the family members of victims of domestic violence has been formed in Shelia's name. It's called the "Shelia Shawls" program. It helps survivors deal with their grief and is a way to remember Shelia Wellstone's work.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Janet Hagberg lives on the 11th floor of a high-rise building overlooking the Mississippi River and the skyline of downtown Minneapolis. She's the executive director of the Silent Witness National Initiative, a group that works to end domestic violence. Hagberg worked with the Wellstones on the issue and says the idea for the Shelia Shawls program began as she was coping with her own grief over the Wellstone's plane crash.

"I was wearing this shawl that I have in my hands; it's a wonderful soft, mohair shawl. And I was comforting myself in the loss of Sheila and just feeling sad and grieving. And it felt to me like Shelia was in the room with me when I was wearing this shawl; like I was really being comforted by her. And I thought, 'Oh, if I feel this much comfort wearing my shawl, how would it feel if you had lost someone to domestic violence?'" Hagberg says.

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Image The shawl

Hagberg posted the idea for Shelia Shawls on the Internet and enlisted the help of her knitting friends. The shawls are meant to ease the grief of loved ones left behind after a murder.

"I wear it even when I don't have to," says Irene Schneider of Hastings, who was searching for comfort after losing her daughter, Megan Fischer, 27, in a brutal murder on March 22, 2003. Schneider's cousin, Betty, requested the shawl and asked that it be knit in Megan's favorite colors.

Schneider says when she's overwhelmed with grief at night, she grabs her dog Giggles and puts on her Shelia Shawl.

"I see it and I go, 'ah, Meg'. And I put it on and I walk around the house. I think of her a lot. I think of her all the time and it's just like it's a moment between Megan and I," Schneider says.

Schneider says her daughter was a lively, beautiful young woman who worked at a nursing home to support herself as she was going through chef's training at the Art Institutes International of Minnesota. Megan Fischer graduated with honors from the culinary program and her mother says she landed her "dream job." Fischer became a chef at a nursing home. Her mother says the job combined Megan's two passions: cooking and caring for the elderly.

"She was in 7th heaven," her mother says. "She got that job shortly after graduating and only had it for five months until she was murdered."

Meagan Fisher was killed by a man she met in culinary school. Irene Schneider says the man who killed her daughter spent time in the Schneider family home and was invited to Megan's last birthday party. Schneider says the man became enraged when Megan refused to let their friendship develop into a romantic relationship.

Phone records show that on the night Megan was murdered, the man was harrassing her and calling her every five minutes. Megan had been refusing his calls, but cellphone records show she finally spoke to the man around onein the morning. That was the last phone call Megan Fischer answered. Irene Schneider says Megan's roommate found her lying in a pool of blood around 4 o'clock in the morning.

"She had been stabbed 17 times in her neck, back -- and the most bizare thing is the culinary kit that she had from school. He had gotten up and had gone into the kitchen and got that knife and that's what he killed her with; her own knife. And that's how she died," Schneider says. The man was convicted of first-degree premeditated murder. He is serving life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Megan's murder and the trial are part of a long string of misfortunes Irene Schneider has faced. Eleven years ago her husband, Jim, Megan's father, died suddenly of a massive heart attack. He was a St. Louis Park police officer and died on the job at 43.

Five years ago Schneider was diagnosed with breast cancer. She says through both tragic events, Megan was her pillar of support.

"And she would send me the funniest cards -- from her heart -- she would pour hear heart out about how much she loved me and knew I was going to be OK because I was strong and I was a survivor and now she's gone and it's just so sad. It's just such a waste of a wonderful life. With Jim dying, with the cancer, and with Megan, it's like. OK, I'm done. I can't, I just don't want anymore right now. Anyway, so I think of everything that she's ever done for me, said to me, given to me, hugged me, kissed me; it's all in the shawl. And that's what really makes it so special," she says.

Janet Hagberg, the organizer of the Shelia Shawls program, says the volunteer knitters are asked to think healing thoughts and to try to knit love into each stitch. Hagberg says as a result there's a powerful emotional connection between the knitter and the shawl recipient.

"We gave a teenage girl who is the daughter of a woman that was murdered -- and her grandmother -- we gave them both a shawl," Hagberg says. "And the teenaged girl slept with her shawl. Because she said it felt like a comforting thing; like her mother was actually there with her. I thought that was very moving."

Connie Clarke of Bloomington has been knitting for charitable groups for the past 40 years. Last April she found out about the Shelia Shawls program from the Internet and has donated 20 shawls so far. Clarke says her motivation for participating is simple.

"I do it because it's something I feel I can maybe make a difference in someone's life. I physically can't; I'm not out and around with people, but yet I feel I can create something that has a lasting comfort," Clarke says.

Clarke says her favorite spot to knit is on her couch with her Yorkshire Terrier, Sam, in her lap. She says her most productive knitting time is in the early morning, before the sun comes up. She says the quiet helps her focus.

"I think of the person that will get it and hopefully that they can feel the good energy that goes into it and the love that is there when it's created," she says.

For Irene Schneider, who's still wrestling with her grief over losing her daughter, Megan. She recognizes some people may not understand the comfort the shawls bring.

"I don't know. To me it's like I'm holding Megan when I hold that shawl. When I have it wrapped around me. And I just thank these lovely women that do this. And for the people that don't get it. Maybe it's a good thing because they haven't had an awful act of violence done to any of their loved ones. And I pray that they never do because it's unexplainable. It's a long haul and it's very draining. But the shawls help," she says.

Irene Schneider is planning to hold a fundraiser next year in her daughter's name. She says the money raised will go to support the Shelia Shawls program.

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