On Dec. 24, 2017, Jessica Baird, a teacher and a parishioner at Julian of Norwich Anglican Church in Ottawa, was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis (AS), a rare type of arthritis causing, among other things, severe and long-term pain in the spine.
Baird had started to experience mysterious symptoms the previous winter, and by the summer she was told she had some sort of autoimmune illness—but doctors were not yet able to say which one. After all the medical appointments to get to the bottom of what she was experiencing, and after the stress of not knowing, she says, her diagnosis felt like a relief.
“It was the most remarkable Christmas gift you ever want to get,” she says. “When you finally have a name for all the symptoms you’re having it really does help, because then you can deal with it.”
The year 2017 had not been easy for Baird. But it had been unusual in another way as well: it saw her called to a unique and growing ministry that she says has brought her much joy.
It started when a friend who has lupus, another chronic autoimmune disease, told her she had found that wearing crazy socks to her medical appointments helped make her feel a bit better. Baird tried it, and liked it.
“It helped me,” Baird says. “It’s fun, and it also started some really great conversations and lightened the mood in the room.”
Baird decided to take the idea to another level.
“I said to my friends and my family, ‘OK, send me fun socks,’ and then I put a YouTube video out that said, ‘Send me fun socks, and I’ll wear a pair every day of the year for 365 days to get me through this,’ ” she says.
Baird’s appeal for socks spread quickly. A year later, she had her diagnosis—and “thousands and thousands” of socks.
She was now confronted with the problem of what to do with all those crazy socks.
“Then I thought, what about reaching to people that are in similar situations as me and seeing if this would be something they would like?” she says.
She started mailing the socks to others suffering from autoimmune or chronic conditions—and thus the Sock Project was born.
Since then, Baird says, it seems to have taken on a life of its own.
“The first one or two people that got the socks—the responses from them were so remarkable … and things started coming out on social media, with people talking about paying it forward and loving the fact that they had gotten socks from this person. I thought maybe I need to do more of this and then it just kept growing,” Baird says.
“That’s when I started to realize this is a ministry, this is a calling—I need to keep doing what I’m doing and helping all these people that really truly need help.”
Sometimes Baird contacts people who have left comments about the project on social media and offers to send them socks; other times people will contact her themselves and request a sock delivery. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Baird has also been sending socks to people suffering from COVID-19 and struggling with the isolation of not being able to leave their homes.
She says she has received more than 10,000 pairs of socks over the last four years. As this article was being written in mid-August, she had sent out more than 8,000 pairs.
Meanwhile, as word of the project has spread, it has grown in other directions. Baird has delivered sermons on her project and given talks to instructors at the University of Ottawa’s faculty of education. A friend of hers, Anglican writer Kelly Ann Charleson, wrote a children’s book inspired by the project. Baird will be working with the Go Project, a children’s and youth ministry of the United Church of Canada, to develop a Sunday school curriculum based on the sock project, and is also planning workshops this fall for the Ottawa school board.
Since this spring, she has also been selling socks online in partnership with a Florida-based company. Designs are intended to encourage and uplift; one pair of socks depicts a cute dinosaur—ankylosaurus, to be exact—for people who have ankylosing spondylitis.
Baird has had to take a break from an M.Div she started at the Atlantic School of Theology, partly because of the COVID-19 pandemic but partly also because of the demands of her unusual ministry. She says she hopes to eventually finish her degree and be ordained, but there are times when she wonders if she has already found her true calling.
“I do have this thought that God looks at me and might laugh a little bit sometimes because of the way the Sock Project goes,” she says with a chuckle.
Baird has felt a symbolism at work in the act of giving wacky socks to people who are suffering.
“We’re kind of walking together in each other’s footsteps and challenges—’I had this sock given to me, but now I’m paying it forward to someone else who’s going through a similar situation.’ So that’s always just a really great nice heartfelt feeling, but also the development of community and support.”
This sense of communion with others, she says, is particularly needed by people suffering from autoimmune and chronic diseases. These conditions often aren’t well understood, Baird says, and other people sometimes view the symptoms of them with skepticism.
“A lot of people have shared their stories with me about being left behind, or people not listening to them, or stepping out of their lives because people start to think differently of them and think that they’re making these things up,” she says. “And so they often lose support from doctors or from family members or from loved ones.”
And so part of what the Sock Project is about is encouraging people to open up.
“Every time I speak at the university, it seems that somebody that introduces me is like, ‘Here’s Jessica from the Sock Project—but pay attention, because it’s not about socks,’ ” she says.