Shaler church group makes stuffed bears to comfort kids worldwide
A group of women are spreading their mission of love through the community and around the world one stitch at a time.
The Caring Hands group, based out of Elfinwild Presbyterian Church in Shaler, meets twice per month to sew stuffed bears to be distributed to children in need around the area, country and world.
The group started 11 years ago after Mary Ann Johnson, 83, of Shaler Township, heard about a similar group operating in Colorado.
“We feel like we're really extending ourselves to help others,” Johnson said. “It makes my heart feel real good the good Lord is using me somehow.”
The 14 women in the group work with donated fabric and thread. Each bear has a bow around its neck and the words “God loves you” written near its paw.
While the message has caused some groups to reject the Caring Hands group's donations, it's important for the volunteers to continue to include it.
“It's important because it's a message we want to spread around the world,” said Bea Magill, 82, of Shaler.
Locally, the Caring Hands group has given the bears to local fire, police and emergency medical service departments to distribute to children who need comfort.
They also have sent the bears to Russian orphanages, Africa, Guatemala, mission sites, Guyana, nursing homes and crisis pregnancy centers.
Magill and her husband took 25 to 30 bears to Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina to give to children who might have lost all of their toys.
Another Caring Hands volunteer, Jean Ancellotti, 81, of Indiana Township, sent 50 bears to her granddaughter while she was doing mission work in Africa.
“You like to think you're making the child happy and imagining their smile,” said Carol Staude, 77, of McCandless, as she embroidered faces on the bears last week.
In addition to the bears, the Caring Hands group has made lap blankets, prayer shawls, heart-shaped pillows for breast-cancer patients, hats for chemotherapy patients, travel pillows for boys and girls served by Ronald McDonald House Charities and cushions for all of the folding chairs at Elfinwild Presbyterian Church.
Currently, the women are meeting once per week to meet a special request for 350 bears for Operation Christmas Child.
Every year for the past eight years, Julie Panza has organized an Operation Christmas Child drive at the church and this year asked the women to make bears for the campaign.
Operation Christmas Child is a project of Samaritan's Purse, a Christian humanitarian organization, which sends shoe boxes of small gifts to children in need around the world.
Elfinwild Presbyterian Church has acted as a relay center and regional collection site of the shoe boxes for the past five years. Last year, the church collected more than 3,000 shoe boxes from its members and community organizations.
“The bears they make are so beautiful and mean so much to every single child here who receives one,” Panza said. “To a child in another country who has maybe never received a gift before, that bear can be a lasting item from that shoe box, and it's made with love.”
While the Caring Hands volunteers enjoy the friendship and support they receive from working with each other to create the bears, they hope the caring bears bring the same support to those who receive them.
“I would love to see the children's faces when they open one of those boxes,” Johnson said. “Those little bears, you never know what kind of journey they'll be on, but you know it's a good one.”
Bethany Hofstetter is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6364 or firstname.lastname@example.org.