Namibia has a population of 1.8 million - about the same as Kansas City - and one of the world’s highest rates of HIV/AIDS. An estimated 21% of the adult population is infected. It’s driven average life expectancy down to 49 years and it’s been the leading cause of death since 1996. At least 60,000 Namibian children under the age of 17 have lost both parents to the virus.
It was these children Berman came to see. At schools and shelters along her route, she handed out over 2,000 brightly-colored, hand-knitted bears, each affixed with a label: With Love, Mother Bear Ellen....Mother Bear Joan... Mother Bear Banafsheh, and a bright red heart.
She watched as children eagerly took the little toys and began to play. At one stop, she saw little girl take off her torn shoes and put them on her new bear’s feet. Other children tied them to their backs like Namibian mothers carry babies.
“One mother we offered a bear to sat down for a moment,” Berman recalls. “Then she came over an put her baby in our truck and wanted us to take her back to America. It was heartbreaking.”
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The Mother Bear Project had its origins in a story Berman, a Minnesota mother of two, read in a 2003 issue of Marie Claire.
It described the horrifying phenomena of “the Virgin Cure.” Believing that sex with a virgin would cure AIDS, some men were raping children and babies. A child protection unit in Durban, South Africa was calling for items of comfort for children they had rescued.
"I could not just close the magazine and continue with my everyday life knowing there were children in such pain," she told a South African newspaper later that year.
Her mother had knitted bears for each of Berman’s children from an World War II-era pattern, and they had loved them until they were threadbare. They were fairly small and lightweight. “The only problem was I didn’t knit.”
Her mom dug out the pattern and gave her a tutorial. “I muddled through my first bear, and began inviting 25+ women into my home every Friday from 9-1 for coffee, cookies and learning to make bears.”
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Some nine years later, the Mother Bear Project has handed out 69,650 bears in 19 Africa nations and Haiti.
Berman hit on a project that appealed to the best in people: the desire to bring a little happiness to the heart of a child in need. As word of her project spread in that first year, she began receiving bears by the bushel.When she knitted her first Mother Bear, “I had never been to Africa. I had no connection to Africa in any way.” Now, she has a network of contacts stretching from Liberia to South Africa. Her distribution system is almost totally organic: “Some of our best bear contacts have been discovered by other bear contacts.”
The creation of Mother Bears has become a truly global movement. They’ve received bears from every U.S. state, from Australia, Ireland, Spain, Scotland, Mexico and several other countries. They were recently surprised by a shipment of 150 bears knitted by four women in Iran.
She isn’t sure how many people have participated in the Project over the years, “but I would say hundreds, perhaps thousands.” There are at least 200 people in the “100 Bear Club,” and know that three or four have made over 1,000.
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Running the project has become a full-time job for Berman. She tracks the inflow and outflow over 1,000 bears a month, sends a personal note to each sender, keeps in touch with her contacts around Africa, sends out kits and patterns, writes fundraising letters and the newsletter, keep the books (“my least favorite job,” she admits), participates in two knitting groups in the Twin Cities each month, joins the monthly packing sessions, and even works with the yarn rolling group that helps create kits for even more bears. She visits Africa every two or three years, and travels the yarn trade-show circuit to raise awareness of the Project. During her rare down times, she knits tiny ornamental bears to sell on the website to raise additional funds.
She’s helped by a small army of volunteers. Aside from the knitters and bear contacts around the world, she also has the assistance of energetic volunteers at the home office.
Her mother, for example, repairs bears that arrive in Minnesota with rips or missing necks or button eyes that need to be replaced with embroidery. “I call her the Florence Nightingale of bears.” Her packing coordinator, Jean Holm, finds people to pack the bears, stored in two storage units, into boxes of 50. Another volunteer stamps 1,000 of “With Love” tags, while still another uploads the hundreds of pictures of children and their bears on the Project’s website.
Amazingly, the Project gets by on small donations. “We’ve tried to get grants,” she says, “but it just seems like there are no grants for comfort - something every child needs.”
Asked what one thing would make everything easier, Berman doesn’t hesitate: “A corporate sponsor who could help cover some of our shipping expenses. We spend over $2,000 a month on shipping.” The price of shipping a single box of 50 bears has doubled since she started the project, and it’s currently their largest expense.
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Beyond logistics, Berman also faces the challenge of keeping Mother Bears apolitical and agnostic.
“Our bears have been made by people of all faiths from all over the world, and I want this project to be inclusive of all.”
This had made her “quite picky” about who can distribute bears. They can’t be given out as holiday gifts or with religious messages. “They are to be given with love as they are intended to be unconditional gifts.”
There’s one important holiday on the Mother Bear calendar: World AIDS Day.
However extraordinary it is to make and distribute 69,650 bears, Berman is mindful that there are over 16 million AIDS orphans in the world today. Her project seeks not only to reach as many of those children as possible, but to raise awareness of their plight.
In many counties, AIDS orphans are push to the margins of society. They’re ignored or shunned; often, they’re the only ones left alive to care for younger siblings or sick and elderly relatives. Through no fault of their own, they’ve been robbed of much of the joy of being children.
The Mother Bear Project wants to return a little of that stolen sense of childhood. It’s “something to call their own - a friend to talk to, a toy to play with, a soft bear to lighten their hearts.”
She heard of one small orphan in South Africa who rushed back into his collapsing home during the torrential rains of spring to rescue his bear. When asked why, he explained: “The bear has a heart on it, and that means someone loves me.”
Some children, further stigmatized when their own HIV-positive status has been discovered, call their bears their only friends. “Some have even asked to be buried with their bears.”
“Americans and people everywhere need to realize that we really share the burdens of our brothers and sisters all over the world,” she says. “Small acts can have very large outcomes, and everyone can find a way to make a difference.”
To learn more about the Mother Bear Project, please visit their website. Not a knitter? No worries - there are plenty of ways to help!
Ugandan Girls With Their Mother Bears
Photo by Melissa Mosher
With thanks to Gloria Feinstein for permission