Mother Bear Project
Newsletter #33 – December 2016

Featured Mother Bear

Founder and Chief Mother Bear, Amy Berman

When Amy Berman began Mother Bear Project 14 years ago, her goal was to provide comfort to a few children who had been affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. She started small, teaching herself to knit and then inviting friends to her home to teach them as well in exchange for a promise to make a bear.

Today, Amy is running a nonprofit organization that has distributed over 128,000 bears to children in 29 countries—and it continues to grow. How has her vision of the organization changed? Has her mission evolved as Mother Bear Project has grown? And, at the practical level, what’s the hardest part of running an expanding program without losing her mind?

Here, Amy answers a few questions about an organization that means so much to so many, both bear makers and the kids who receive bears.

Q: You started Mother Bear Project 14 years ago to give comfort to children suffering from the HIV/AIDS pandemic after reading a magazine article that left you feeling horrified and compelled to take action. Did you ever think you’d get this far?

A: When I began MBP, I never intended on starting a nonprofit organization. I simply had to send comfort to so many children whose lives have been affected by HIV/AIDS. This was an idea that I had no idea would resonate with so many. I never realized there was a whole community of very generous and compassionate knitters and crocheters all over the U.S. and around the world. I initially thought it would be really amazing if I could eventually send 100 bears to 100 children. Fourteen years later, over 128,000 bears have been sent, and that is something that is hard to believe.

Q: After all these years, what’s your favorite part of Mother Bear Project?

A: I love that this project brings people together of all faiths, ages and abilities from all over the world to do something for children. Because of this, I am very careful that everyone on both sides are respected and that the bears are simply given with unconditional love. I have met the most wonderful people whose hearts are in the same place, and never in my life could I imagine that this project would lead me to those individuals.

Finally, it is the smiles on the children’s faces and the way they adore these little bears that make me certain that what I am doing is very worthwhile. This project is an extension of my heart, and it feels very personal to me.

Q: Bear makers often wonder how you cram so many bears into a box for their trip to Africa. But how do you divvy up the bears to send? For example, a bear maker sends in 10 bears, but they show up in different places at different times. Do you do that on purpose?

A: Bears are typically sent in boxes of 50—I vacuum out the air to squeeze them all in. When packing bears, we try to have no more than two bears in a box that are made by the same bear maker so that every child will feel that their bear is unique and made specially for them.

Q: When you send bears to the volunteers, do you send exactly the number they request?

A: When sending the bears, I try to send a couple of extra bears just in case a child or two is added to the group by the time the box reaches its destination. The volunteer distributors will make sure they all find homes.

Q: What aspect of Mother Bear Project keeps you up at night? What’s the hardest part of running the organization?

A: The hardest part of running this organization may be dealing with so many photos! They come to me in so many formats, and they arrive typically three months to a year after a bear is sent to me—and sometimes the photos take two years before I receive them.

Everyone loves to see their bears in the arms of the children, but it is very unlikely that every bear will be spotted. Once in a while a volunteer’s camera or computer is stolen or breaks, and sometimes bears are given to sick children in a clinic or hospital and photographs cannot be taken. Also, the kids may be smiling in the photos or they may look terrified—most have never seen a camera—and, often, the person who is taking their photo—so it can be fun or a little scary.

The photos are simply a way to show that the bears are making it into the children’s arms and offer a glimpse into a moment. Once the children finish getting their photos taken, a sometimes somber moment, they rejoice with their new bear friends and the playing begins! I have seen this for myself several times, and it is fun to witness.

Q: Have you found any unexpected benefits?

A: When I began MBP, it was all about the cause. I looked at the knitting as a means to the end of helping comfort children whose lives were affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. I decided to learn how to cast on and knit right away so I could make my first bear and teach others to knit. Now I love and appreciate knitting, although I still only make bears—very basic ones! I find knitting relaxing and even meditative. I don’t know if I would have picked up knitting needles if it were not for deciding to start MBP.

Q: What’s in store for Mother Bear Project in the future?

A: My hope is that MBP will stay true to its purpose and that it will continue to stay simple in its message. I am always amazed at how much work it is to keep something simple! I rely on the generosity of so many and am so grateful for every bear I receive.

Amy and MBP: At a Glance

Number of people I have taught to knit: over 200

Number of countries I’ve received bears from: over 30

Number of countries I’ve sent bears to: 29

Youngest bear maker: 6

Oldest bear maker: 100

Number of times you have distributed bears personally: 6

Most dangerous MBP moment: Sleeping in a room with bats flying and crawling around me for three nights on a bear distribution trip in Africa. I somehow managed to fall asleep anyway.

Most touching moment: I will never forget on a trip to Lesotho, we had an impromptu stop to distribute extra bears to a very small village. There were so many grandmas who were raising their very young grandchildren. As the children gathered to receive their bears, one grandma took my hands in hers as her eyes filled with tears. She was thanking me for caring about their children and letting them know they are not forgotten. I was deeply moved.

Mother Bear Gifts

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Mother Bear Gail poses her bear in Paris

An African Child

When a friend who served in Africa while in the Peace Corps saw Mother Bear Project photos of my bears in the arms of delighted children, he said “An African child knows the true value of a gift and without prompting repays us a hundredfold with such happy faces as these!” Indeed, I love those happy children. And I love knitting bears.

Dozens of pictures of smiling bears and their new owners decorate the space above my desk. Ironically, embroidering the bear’s smile has always been the hardest part for me; it’s almost the final task, the one that occurs before each bear is given a special hug and kiss to be passed on to its final recipient. Then they are packed in a box and shipped to Minnesota. 

Another thing I like: anyone can make these bears. If you can crochet, you can make one. If you knit, it’s an easy task. I’ve encouraged friends and strangers, women and men, to order directions and join the crowd. In 2007 I began by completing a dozen bears. A few here, more there, now I’m knitting #81 and there’s no end in sight. 

My bears are not perfect, nor do they boast elaborate details. They’re knit of multicolored chenille yarn and are under-stuffed and cushy. Despite my best efforts, each mouth is still slightly askew. After they leave me I know they’ll pass through a only few more hands before being sent abroad – one pair of hands will sew on a heart, and another will pack them for Africa. It’s a very short trip from my knitting needles to a grateful child, and the receipt of a prized photo is an incredibly heartwarming reward. It’s a gift to us, too – that in our own modest way, we can make a little bear and create a comforting difference in someone’s life. That causes me to smile. A lot.

Sara Rath
Guest Writer and Bear Maker

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