When I started my career in advertising, I never imagined I'd end up running my own nonprofit that gives comfort in the form of handmade teddy bears to children in Africa who are affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
I was going to be a copywriter.
Ever since I was young, I dreamed of becoming a writer. As I got older, I became fascinated by advertising. I took notice of clever, well-written ads and decided this was the path I would pursue. I went to journalism school and majored in advertising so someday I could use my writing skill as a copywriter. But my first job out of college was in advertising sales, and I happened to be good at it. So for 15 years I continued selling advertising.
Then one day in 2003, I came across a magazine article that changed my path. I read about the horrifying phenomenon of the "virgin cure." Babies and young children were being raped in South Africa because many men believed that having sex with a virgin would cure them of AIDS. A child protection unit near Durban, South Africa, was calling for items of comfort for these very young victims.
I could not just close the magazine and continue with my everyday life knowing there were children in such pain. I thought about what had brought my two children comfort. An image of the bears my mother knit for my kids came to mind. The only problem was that I didn't knit.
My mom dug out the pattern and showed me the knitting basics. I muddled through my first bear and began inviting large groups of women – 25 people and more -- into my home every Friday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. for coffee, cookies and lessons on making bears. I, who barely could knit, was now teaching hundreds.
Almost nine years later, this effort known as Mother Bear Project has sent nearly 70,000 bears to children affected by HIV/AIDS in 19 African countries and Haiti. After the Minneapolis Star Tribune featured Mother Bear Project and a website, motherbearproject.org, was built, knitters and crocheters began getting involved from every state in the U.S. and several countries around the world. We recently received 150 bears from four women in Iran, reinforcing to me that people from totally different backgrounds and from different parts of the world can come together.
To respect each individual involved, and because I want this project to be inclusive of all, the bears are not given out as holiday gifts or with any religious messages. They are to be given by volunteers with love, as they are intended to be unconditional gifts.
I recently returned from a trip to rural northern Namibia, where I distributed 2,200 bears to children in settlements, farms, soup kitchens and schools. These children had nothing more than the ripped shirts on their backs. I was behind the camera much of the time, capturing the images of each child for the individual bear makers. I could not help but notice the eyes of these children, often filled with illness, loss of innocence and a childhood filled with hardship.
When the children received their bears, they would often tie them on their backs as African mothers carry their babies – tied around their necks, piggy-back style -- or simply cradle them close. One little girl took off her tattered shoes and placed them on the feet of her new friend, her bear.
I hear from my bear contacts that many children carry their bears everywhere. For some, these bears soak up their tears and are always there to comfort them. For all, these bears lighten their hearts and return a little of that stolen childhood. The bears are the first thing most of these children can call their own, something that is hard for most of us to even imagine.
The poverty I saw on this trip was truly indescribable. There are many organizations that help provide food, clothing, shelter and education. Mother Bear Project believes every child also needs comfort. There are so many ways to help Mother Bear Project. If you know of a knitter or crocheter in your life, you can order a kit to get them started on their first bear. If you don't know anyone interested in making a bear, for $10 you can sponsor a bear to be shipped to Africa and we will sign your name (or someone else's if you choose to do this as a gift) on the tag that every bear wears. If you visit www.motherbearproject.org, you will see other ways you can help.
Small things can have very large outcomes. Each person can look inside themselves and find a way to make a difference.