When Cape May County's LGBT organization was asked to sponsor a needleworking group, Craig van Baal was reluctant.

"He said it might perpetuate a stereotype - a bunch of queens sitting around knitting," recalls fiber artist Francesca Geores.

But she persisted, and van Baal, vice president of GABLES, came to realize that knitting for charity was an endeavor that could attract all sorts of people.

"I went back to our mantra," he says. "We are the gay group doing good things for the entire community."

Under GABLES's rainbow umbrella - which provided insurance coverage, promotional expertise, and about $500 in start-up funds - Geores founded "Scarf It Up" in 2012 (on Facebook, Scarf It Up Cape May).

From an initial half-dozen knitters, membership has grown to 42. Like Geores herself, all are heterosexual women, with the exception of four gay men - two couples - who also are regulars.

The knitters gather three times a week and collectively have made and donated 1,254 hats, scarves, mittens, blankets and other items to local homeless shelters, health-care facilities, veterans organizations, and other recipients, including fatherless youngsters in Vietnam.

"I'm thrilled we've been able to accomplish what we have accomplished," says Geores, who lives in North Cape May.

She and her Scarf It Up volunteers also create Christmas decorations for West Cape May's Wilbraham Park; teach knitting to students at Richard M. Teitelman Middle School in Cape May; and display their work in the gallery at the Bayshore Center at Bivalve, N.J.

"I could never have conceived of all this," Geores says, sitting with eight other knitters at Aetherstorm Gaming, a North Cape May Shopping Center store that also frequently hosts Dungeons and Dragons players.

On the day I visit, van Baal and Vince Grimm, executive director of GABLES, also are on hand.

Like me, neither of them can knit a stitch. (So much for stereotypes.) But both men are big fans of Scarf It Up, and say the fact that it's flourishing as part of GABLES suggests how dramatically times have changed for the local LGBT community. "It's unbelievable," says Grimm, 79, who came out as a Pottstown teenager in the 1950s.

"When GABLES started 21 years ago, one of our goals was to not segregate ourselves," van Baal, of Dennis Township, notes.

The group - which has grown from about 25 to 250 members, including straight people - promotes a lively array of social and fund-raising events, and publishes an LGBT visitors' guide that local tourism boosters have embraced.

GABLES has contributed $120,000 to various nongay programs, such as a local shelter for women, van Baal, 65, says.

"To be accepted, you have to work within the [larger] community," he adds. "This is the Bible Belt, a heavily Republican county, and we are accepted. Not just tolerated, but accepted."

Notes Grimm, a mixed media artist who lives in Lower Township with his partner of 53 years, "it's our community, too."

At Aetherstorm Gaming, the knitters get down to business at a long table. It's gloomy outside, but the atmosphere inside is bright, and the camaraderie is contagious.

Explaining how she came to claim a seat three years ago, Scarf It Up's recording secretary, Carol Link, says she "saw an ad in the paper and called Fran."

She had become isolated after she was widowed, and friends became concerned. They were urging her to get out more.

"I asked Fran, 'Do you have to be gay to get in?' " recalls Link, 68, of North Cape May. "Not that it's an issue for me."

Her shortage of knitting expertise ("I told Fran, 'I don't know how to do anything") wasn't an issue either.

Geores and fellow member Meryl Williams of North Cape May have both taught knitting professionally, the yarn is free, and other folks around the table offer tips as well. Group members also support each other when personal difficulties arise.

Says Geores, "We're caring people, and there's a natural interconnectedness."

Including between gays and straights.

Anthony Bruno, 48, is one of the four gay male knitters.

"For me, it's more of a social thing," says the North Cape May office manager. "We have fun with them, and they have fun with us."

Says Link, "If GABLES is having a dinner, count us in."

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