Too often news stories of people in despair leave our minds once the screen switches images or the newspaper is laid aside. But once in a while, a story is so affecting that an individual is spurred to action.
In 2003, that happened to Amy Berman of Minnetonka. She was so moved by a story of voiceless victims in Africa that she needed to do something to help them. The shocking story that motivated Berman to act discussed the problem of child rape by those who believe it will cure AIDS. Berman heard about South African police from the child protection unit asking for items to comfort the child victims, but she didn’t want to just collect stuffed animals. Instead, she wanted to provide something more personal.
“I remembered the personalized bears my mother used to knit from a World War II-era pattern,” says Berman. When she realized how lightweight and easy to ship they are, Berman decided she would knit bears to send to Africa.
There was only one problem: Berman didn’t know how to knit. She says, “I asked my mother to show me and I muddled through. Then I designed a pattern for anyone who had never done a knitting project before.”
Berman invited people into her home and offered to teach them to knit if they agreed to knit a bear for African children. It started slowly at first, but within a week after a story about Berman’s efforts appeared in the Star Tribune, she received more than 3,000 requests for patterns. The tremendous response inspired Berman to launch the Mother Bear Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing comfort and hope to children, primarily those affected by HIV/AIDS in developing nations, by giving them a gift of love in the form of hand-knit or crocheted bears. “I wasn’t out to start a nonprofit,” says Berman. “I just wanted to help children.”
Things happened quickly after that. She picked a name (easy, as her son used to call her “Mother Bear”) and launched the organization. But the management of the Mother Bear Project, like knitting, was a brand-new experience for Berman. In order to accommodate the growing demand, she quit her job in advertising and went to work full time managing her nonprofit.
Berman came up with a simple process for making and collecting bears. Interested individuals send $5 to the Mother Bear Project to purchase one of four bear patterns and cover shipping costs, which includes a tag that reads, “With Love from a Mother Bear,” making all who create a bear an honorary Mother Bear. A complete knitting or crocheting kit is also available for $24, which includes all materials–a pattern, yarn and needles.
And honorary Mother Bears are many. Because of the simple patterns, many knitters return several bears at a time. Hundreds of knitters from all over the world have knit more than 100 bears each, and Berman has created a special group for them: The Mother Bear Project’s 100 Bear Club.
Ingrid Welty has been knitting bears for the Mother Bear Project for seven years. “My mother taught me to knit when I was a kid,” says Welty. “I enjoy knitting during long car rides or plane trips. Knitting these bears is an easy way for me to do something for needy children.”
Welty occasionally gets pictures from children who’ve received her bears, which express gratitude for what is often a child’s only toy, something they hug at night.
Another honorary Mother Bear, Ellen Bittner, began making the bears as a way to keep up with knitting. She likes the satisfaction of successfully completing a bear (as opposed to what she characterizes as her hapless attempts to knit sweaters). She also appreciates how knitting for fun can actually make a difference in the world. “When I began to see pictures of children holding bears I’d made, I realized the worth of giving someone comfort cannot be measured,” Bittner says.
The Mother Bear Project has brought people together to do something kind for children in need. Church groups, book clubs and holiday knitting circles enjoy creating these personalized bears. Some volunteers meet to roll balls of yarn, sew felt hearts onto the bears or pack bears ready for shipment.
Ten years ago, there were only 15 bears in Berman’s first shipment. This year, the Mother Bear Project will ship 100,000 bears made by knitters of all ages and backgrounds, from all over the world. The simple gift of a hand-knit bear touches the hearts of children who have very little with a message that someone in the world loves them.