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STREATOR - Ella Teegardin, Streator's "Mitten Tree lady" is already knitting mittens for next Christmas, carrying on a tradition she started a quarter of a century ago.

Teegardin, now 95, has knitted thousands of mittens over the past 25 years for the children served by Head Start in Streator.

"I couldn't tell you how many I've knitted but someone counted and said it was 1,445," Teegardin said.

It takes about 15 hours to knit one pair, she estimated, so she has to get an early start for the 2006 holiday season. The mittens are hung on a tree at the program center and distributed over the holidays.

"I've already started knitting," said Teegardin. She also take breaks from her mitten making to knit scarves and sweaters for friends and relatives.

Teegardin's First United Methodist Church friends have chipped in to help these days, adding five to eight knitters to the production line.

"That's very important," said Teegardin. "Other people also knitted for the children."

She took up knitting when she took a class at the YMCA at age 50.

Twenty-five years ago, she had fashioned some mittens that she wanted to donate to the preschool children in Head Start, a program for children in poverty. She called Francy Obrohta, then a teacher at Head Start and now the local director.

There were 17 children in the program at the time, and Teegardin knitted mittens for them all.

That job completed, she thought that was the end of her contribution, but Obrohta reminded her that the following year there would still be children without warm hands. Back to the knitting needles Teegardin went.

With Streator's high poverty rate, Head Start now handles 85 3- and 4-year-olds. All get mittens.

Her knitting avocation has earned her the nickname "Mitten Tree Lady" among the young people in Streator who do not have to depend on commercial gloves that are usually too thin and too expensive to keep warm.

She said age has made her hands "kind of stiff," but that has not kept her from meeting her goal. "I don't know how many more years I have left," she said. "But the kids are happy, as well as the staff."

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