Mother Bear Project founder Amy Berman personally delivered the non-profit organization’s 200,000th bear in September, marking 20 years of offering comfort to children affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
Amy carefully selected both the bear and the recipient to honor the volunteers and donors who have contributed to Mother Bear Project’s efforts over the past two decades and to mark the organization’s progress and impact.
Here, Amy talks about her trip, the inspiration for the 200,000th bear and the organization’s growth.
Delivering Mother Bear Project’s 200,000th bear marked a huge milestone, both for you and for the organization. Tell us how you selected the bear and the recipient.
I have sent so many bears to South Africa over the past 20 years, and it’s where I sent our first batch of 15 bears. So it was clear to me that Nelson Mandela, the legendary anti-apartheid activist who became South Africa’s president, should be the inspiration for our 200,000th bear. He had a quote that resonated with me: “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
I also knew that a long-time bear-maker, Gisela Foster, was not only a talented bear maker, but also that Mandela had been her hero for many years. I asked her to make this special bear, and I could not believe the incredible bear she sent. The Mandela bear is wearing his prison uniform underneath his tribal outfit. Gisela took great care to get all the details right, and I was overwhelmed when I saw it.
It then became my goal to find a perfect home for the bear. One of my contacts, Liza from Children in the Wilderness, was instrumental in connecting me with people from the Nelson Mandela Foundation. They thought the best place for this bear would be the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital in Johannesburg, South Africa. That is where I brought this bear and where it will be displayed.
Tell us about your trip in general—how long were you there, and how many bears did you distribute?
Believe it or not, in only five days I was able to distribute and photograph over 3,100 bears! I am fortunate to have volunteers I have worked with over the years who were kind enough to organize and come along to distribute the loads of bears that I had sent in advance.
Bear distribution has gotten easier over the years after we figured out what works best. It has come a long way.
You started this project 20 years ago after reading a magazine article asking for comfort items for children affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
After I read that article, I knew I had to do something to send comfort to so many children who were affected by the horrible HIV/AIDS pandemic. I was not looking to start a project, let alone a non-profit organization. I just thought about what brought my own children comfort, and the World War ll-era bears my own mom made for my children came to mind.
I first asked my mom how to cast on and then how to knit a bear. I muddled through that first bear and began talking to others about the problem, inviting them to my home to learn how to knit, in many cases with the promise that they would make a bear.
Did you ever envision the project taking off like it has?
I wish I knew how this project has grown from our first shipment to 200,000 bears. I have attended so many knitting shows to get the word out over the years, and I think having a narrow focus has helped as well.
Today we have well over 350 people in our 100 Bear Club. Several have made over 1,000 bears.
How does it feel to have come so far, to see your own personal passion spread to so many people around the world?
What I am most proud of is that MBP has knit people together from all over—from all ages, backgrounds and faiths, all over the world—to do something to spread unconditional love to children. I believe my gift has been that I’ve gotten to know so many people who have their hearts in the same place. I feel a special bond with those who make bears as we write notes back and forth.
I have never considered stopping over the past 20 years—it has been so rewarding to see first-hand how much these bears are loved by the children who receive them.
On my recent trip, I was told over and over by teachers at the schools we visited that these kids have never had a toy before. This is something I can do—that we can do with a skill we have—and I think about these kids every time I begin knitting a bear.