Meet the Vermont teacher behind Bernie Sanders’ viral mittens

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Vermont teacher Jen Ellis, 42, has received thousands of emails about Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Inauguration Day mittens.

During President Joe Biden’s inauguration, photographer Brendan Smialowski captured a now-viral image of the Vermont lawmaker bundled up in his coat, the mittens Ellis made for him, and a slightly crooked medical mask. The image has become a meme sensation, with people photoshopping Sanders into funny settings and historical photos.

Sanders told CNN he was happy the photo went viral, because it “makes people aware that we make good mittens in Vermont … we have some good coats, as well.”

Ellis made the mittens for Sanders in 2016, after he lost the Democratic presidential nomination to Hillary Clinton. She asked Sanders’ daughter-in-law, who owns the preschool Ellis’ daughter attended at the time, to deliver them to the senator.

“I was making mittens for all of the preschool teachers for holiday gifts, and I made an extra pair for Bernie,” Ellis, who teaches second grade, told NBC News. “I put a little note in that just said something like, ‘I really support you, and I like you, and I hope you run again.’”

The mittens first started to make headlines early last year when Sanders wore them on the presidential campaign trail, Ellis said. She shared on Twitter at the time that she had made the mittens from repurposed wool sweaters and recycled plastic bottles. Then, in February, she tweeted that she had a few extra pairs for sale and shared her email address.

“I lead a really quiet life up here in Vermont, and only a few people contacted me, and I was able to coordinate with them to get them the mittens that they wanted,” Ellis said. “My email sort of disappeared in the annals of Twitter — until it was found again.”

Since the inauguration, Ellis — who lives in Essex Junction with her wife, Liz, and their 5-year-old daughter — said she’s been “cast into the international spotlight” in a way for which she wasn’t ready. She said she’s received at least 16,000 emails from people who want to buy mittens.

“The media was calling me in my classroom,” she said. “We had to shut off my classroom phone, and everybody wanted to talk to me all at once. I’m a people person; I want to please people, and I wanted to talk to them, too, and I wanted to make mittens for everybody, but I knew that I couldn’t.”

Sharing the mittens’ warmth
Ellis used to sell her mittens at craft fairs. Crafting has healing properties for her, she said.

“There have been times when I’ve just been really down in the dumps, and I’ll go into my craft room, and I’ll do some sewing, or watch some trashy TV,” she said. “It helps me clear my head.”

But she doesn’t make mittens to sell anymore, so when thousands of people reached out after the inauguration, she said she “really struggled” because she wanted to make mittens for everyone. She tweeted on Inauguration Day that she was “so flattered that Bernie wore them to the inauguration,” but she didn’t have any more mittens for sale.

After a few days, she decided to make three more pairs, two of which she’s donated to charities. She donated one pair to Outright Vermont, an LGBTQ youth organization, and another to Passion 4 Paws, a dog rescue in Vermont. Ellis is auctioning off the third pair on eBay, and the proceeds will go toward her daughter’s college fund.

She said a neighbor suggested Passion 4 Paws, and she chose Outright Vermont, because she wanted to support LGBTQ youth. Though she didn’t come out until 19, she said she was aware of Portland Outright, a nonprofit near where she grew up in Maine that has a similar mission.

“I had seen Outright and the people who were in Outright speak on a number of occasions, and I felt an affinity with them,” she said. “I don’t know that I identified exactly what that affinity was, but just knowing that they were there and they were out … was supportive to me as a not out, high school student.”

Ellis said she also wanted to show LGBTQ youth that she “sees” them during the pandemic.

“I recognize that this is hard for them,” she said. “I just wanted to give them a shoutout, you know, like, ‘Hang in there. This is not going to last forever, and when it’s over, you can go out and hug all your friends and be your awesome selves, out in public.’”

Though she doesn’t plan to sell anymore mittens herself, Ellis is partnering with Darn Tough Vermont to make socks inspired by Sanders’ mittens. She said 100 percent of the proceeds will go to the Vermont Foodbank.

She’s also partnering with Vermont Teddy Bear for “some amazing things” in the future, and she’s currently raising money to start a “movement of generosity” to benefit Vermont charities.

‘Generosity brings joy’
After Inauguration Day, Sanders took advantage of his fame and sold merchandise with the image on it to benefit Vermont charities like Meals on Wheels. Ellis said Sanders called her Sunday to tell her that the merchandise had raised nearly $2 million.

“It was so cool to talk to him, because he’s sort of like one of my heroes,” she said.

What she’s taken away from the experience is that one simple act of generosity can have incredible ripple effects, she said.

“We don’t all have material things to give away, but we all have so many other gifts,” Ellis said. “When we give them away in what capacity we can, what we get back is astounding. You know, I didn’t get rich quick off this, but what I have got back has been so much longer lasting and more profoundly contributed to who I am, and I feel like Vermont will benefit from this.”

She said she hopes others take away and remember more from this than just the meme and the mittens.

“Because of a random gift and act of kindness that I did years ago and forgot about, something else totally random happens,” Ellis said. “That guy, you know, captured that shot of Bernie looking like he was, and then it got picked up by the world, and in the middle of the pandemic everybody just had a chance to laugh about something together — not at each other and not anyone’s expense, because Bernie thinks it’s funny, too.”

“I’m starting to talk a lot about how generosity brings joy — not just generosity with your material things, but generosity with your time, with your spirit, with your goodwill,” she concluded.