Feeling a bit sad? How about a HUG? A Hug-a-Bear to share a bit of love today!
Making Hug-a-Bears began in 1992; my memory is unclear whether bears were being made by any group at that time. At first only the Emergency Room at the Bloomington Hospital received bears. I think they used around 40 a month at that time.
My association with RSVP began in 1992 and the Hug-a-Bear became a project of that organization. Georgia Schaich was the RSVP leader. The bear-makers were the only volunteers who were honored once a year with a very nice “thank you” party.
The first bears were not flat bears but were 3-D more like a real animal. But those were more difficult to make. I chose to make the two-sided bears. Other RSVP organizations around the state also made the bears. The pattern that I prefer came from a southern Indiana group. I did make one large Santa Bear for a raffle project for one organization.
RSVP collected fabric—sturdy cottons, denim, light weight upholstery, (gently used fabrics were acceptable) and fiberfill. One year Georgia applied for and received a grant to purchase fiberfill with the goal of 1,000 bears. Many people have donated supplies including one lady in New Jersey who shipped me several boxes of fabrics.
Foolish me, I decided to make 1,000 bears for Georgia but failed as I was only able to get 883 constructed. I believed since my small income was needed for mortgage payments and living expenses, I‘d give my time instead of money. Thus this became my ministry.
Stuffing a bear is not simple. After the bear is cut out, the seams are sewn, clipped then turned inside out. The fiberfill must be “fluffed”—pulled apart into small fluffs then tucked inside—first the ears, then the head, neck, each arm, the body and legs. The opening left for stuffing was sewn shut either by hand or machine. Many times the youth tried to stuff big hunks of the fiberfill into the head and body. Then the bear looks like it just swallowed a big watermelon with flat ears, arms and legs. Those were rejected and redone. The features are either embroidery thread or non-toxic fabric paint as these bears may go into a little mouth any time. They are machine washable and dryable and can be refreshed frequently. They are safe for babies as there is nothing that can be pulled off. The neck ribbons, if used, are sewn on with stitches attaching it firmly on the bear’s neck. The total time from fabric to a happy bear takes from 60-70 minutes. I like to make features similar to normal bear as possible.
One year, Georgia and I took fabric with shears to Meadowood for help in cutting and stuffing while I sewed them together with my sewing machine. The cutting was too difficult for the elderly ladies but that idea turned into bear-stuffing only. Then it was expanded to Bell Trace. In a brief time a contest developed between Meadowood and Bell Trace stuffers. One group tried to out-stuff the other. Each group would stuff at least 100 bears in an afternoon. It was fun with a lot of work. I’d come home completely exhausted. Redbud also helped stuff but that group was smaller. At that time my nickname was “The Bear Lady.”
Among other groups involved in stuffing bears have been Girl Scout Troops, a Boy Scout troop, 4-H Club members, Church Women United at their district meeting, some friends, the Waycross Youth campers, grade school children, Women’s Associations of two different churches, employees of Monroe Bank and one lady who made bears for her court ordered community service project. I was asked to bring the bear stuffing to Hospitality House—now Garden Villa, but it was too difficult for the residents there. Bear stuffing is a social activity which keeps everyone’s hands and minds involved.
Of all the help I’ve received from others over the years, I believe the most challenging was the lady who had court-ordered community service hours. She could not tolerate being around people and chose to make bears at home. She worked unsupervised. She completed the required hours by making the bears by hand after her machine broke. This took her several months.
In September, 2001, I was surprised by a phone call from a local newspaper reporter with the Herald Times. That reporter had heard of Hug-a-Bears and wanted to write a story. It was a story, indeed, that covered half of the page in the Neighbors section including by a lovely color picture. Wow! What an honor!
The story was also carried by the Rushville Republican in Rushville, Indiana. I had written a community news column for that newspaper. I had resided in Milroy, Indiana for over 30 years.
The story in the Herald Times was picked up by a national women’s magazine, Women’s World. I had never dreamed such a humble little project could create so much attention.
I needed some recipients, but recipients of the bears are rarely known. However, in searching, I located four children who had received this little bit of cheer. A professional photographer came to photograph these four children (with parent’s permission) with over 200 bears that I had made. A story and the picture appeared in the April 2002 issue. What a surprise that was!
During the years that I’ve made these little bears, I’ve heard some interesting stories. One was about a little three-year old boy. He and his mother, a single parent, were involved in an auto accident. When his mama was taken for x-rays, he was terrified. An ER nurse calmed him with a nice large eyeless bear made in flannel. It became his comforter and companion. His mother said, “It saved his life.” Six years later he was still keeping that bear nearby even on vacations.
His mother related that she had no idea how the eyeless bear was supplied. His mother used a permanent marker to give the bear eyes. When I was working with a Girl Scout troop in Ellettsville, he heard about it and wanted to join in the stuffing. However, could not because of illness. He desired make a bear for another child. His mother requested that I ask his scout troop about stuffing bears so some other frightened little boy could enjoy the comfort of a nice “fluffy friend.” That troop of young teenage boys worked very hard during the 45 minutes they were allowed. Their dedication to the task impressed me and their Scout Master.
Another story that comes to mind is of a woman who lost her husband and mother within a few hours of each. She began crying uncontrollably over her losses, which was very understandable. Finally one of the nurses gave her a bear. She told me that she never let go of that bear for a week while she was in the hospital. However, when her daughter began helping get her things together to leave, her daughter tried to just toss that old bear. The lady told me, “I grabbed it and told my daughter that was a savior for her. It was not going to be thrown away.”
In the 20 years, I estimate that I have made over 10,000 bears. These little bits of me have gone to many children and adults. I’ve used them as get-well cards and even as reminder of their loved one after a death. A little embroidery on a satin bears soothes many hurts. Originally the satin bears (made from scraps from wedding and special occasion gowns I’d altered) were made for delivery to residents of the nursing homes in Bloomington, Ellettsville, Spencer, Gosport and a group home in Spencer on Christmas Day. This project was originated by a local counselor and continued for over five years until the counselor returned to his homeland, Israel. I tried to continue but found it too exhausting. However, the last year, a therapy dog joined us at Hospitality House. The dog’s master had arranged for the dog’s presence. That dog was a hit.
Besides the Bloomington Hospital Emergency Department and the nursing homes, these bears have gone to the City Police, the State Police, the children at Crestmont Housing (over 300 were delivered one year to this low-income area), Salvation Army Child Care, children at Middle Way House, and children at a Mission School in the Philippines. In the Philippines, the children earned points for accomplishments, then could “buy” a bear with their “points” as a reward. Currently I deliver the bears only to the Surgical Center on Tapp Road. They use over 40 bears a month for children aged six and under.
Hug-a-Bears have been a very popular with everyone. This has not been a just one person’s project, but has been a community project with many people assisting in different ways. Donations of fabrics and fiberfill the list goes on and on. My thanks go out to everyone who has helped in this ministry over the years.
I trust that other ladies will pick up on this valuable project when I am unable to continue. I have appreciated the ladies who have constructed bears, adding many more to my creations, and thus enabling bears to comfort more children and hurting people. We never know what love that little bit of fabric and fiberfill will carry. After all aren’t we commanded to minister to the “least of these?”
Ferne Stout October 2012.
P.S. Before moving to Bloomington, I made horses using unbleached cotton fibers that still had seeds in it. Those little animals had to be stuffed tight so they could stand on all four feet. Also, dolls for the Hospital Auxiliary at the Rush County Hospital, Rushville, Indiana. My 4-H Club girls loved “horse making,” too. I’ve also made numerous lap robes and crib quilts.