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"Knitting From the Heart" 
St.. Helena Star- Thursday
December 21, 2006

By Carolyn Younger  

Five hand-knit bears in nonchalant poses served as an inspirational centerpiece for a group of Thursday night knitters at Muse on Oak Avenue. The St. Helena knit shop started by artist Michele Laurence more than two years ago becomes “Bear Central” one night a month. These particular bears with embroidered faces are destined for youngsters affected by HIV/AIDS in the hardest hit countries of Africa.  “Our goal is to knit 100 bears,” said Laurence, who was inspired by Betty Christiansen’s Book, “Knitting for Peace: Make the World a Better Place, One Stitch at a Time.”

Inspired by book
“I saw the title and it totally intrigued me so I ordered it, took it home and read it all night long,” Laurence said. “Then I called and said ‘I need 20 books.’”  Her next step was to enlist the aid of fellow knitter Julia Capener. Together they made fliers advertising the project. That’s how 11-year-old Georgia McClain learned about it. Then she told some friends and the friends told friends.  News of the project has spread mostly by word-of-mouth and Capener heard recently that a parishioner at Grace Episcopal Church is working on a bear of his own.  “Sandy McIllmoyl got him interested in it so I’d guess there are about 25 people making bears by now,” Capener said, “... and we’re hoping that Father Mac will bless them some Sunday when we’re done.”

Every effort helps
The St. Helena goal may seem modest considering the number of children affected in one way or another by HIV/AIDS, but every effort counts.  To date, the Minneapolis-based Mother Bear Project has delivered more than 14,150 bears knit or crocheted by boys and girls, men and women, all over the world.  The St. Helena knitters — elementary school youngsters to grandmothers whose skills vary from beginners to “how does she do that?” — started their needles clicking away on this particular project in November.  Last week, 11-year-old Justina Holguin was there with her grandmother, Rowena Parnell. Chloe Martin, 8, and her sister, Rosie, about to turn 11, worked at a long table with their mother offering encouragement. Next to Rosie was St. Helena planning commissioner Kay Philippakis, her needles flashing, working on several projects at once including a brown bear with a red and lime green sweater.

Students join in
At a smaller table in another part of the crowded yarn shop were St. Helena Elementary School student Emma Behrens, 10, and a group of 11-year-old friends from Robert Louis Stevenson Middle School, Holguin, McClain and Lola Behrens.  Everyone was counting stitches and chatting. All agreed that the bear project “was a great cause.”

 “They are for the kids in Africa,” Holguin said, after explaining she heard about them from her grandmother, a regular visitor to the shop. “They’re for the kids in Africa and I think they deserve them.”

 McClain agreed. “I really wanted to do this for the kids,” she said as she knitted up a chocolate brown bear paw. Most of the yarn being used is washable, worsted weight yarn that Laurence provides for 20 percent off but any yarn, as long as it is washable and the right weight, can be used.  

The knitting instructions, provided by the Mother Bear Project, are based on a World War II-era pattern. When the bears are completed they are sent to the organization along with $3 to cover the cost of shipping. A red felt heart is added as well as a tag with the knitter’s name before the bear is shipped to one of the project partners, such as Ingwavuma Orphan Care in Mulungeni, a village in rural South Africa, or the HIV pediatrics unit at Johannesburg Hospital, or any number of villages, orphanages, clinics, family centers, hospices and shelters.

 The children’s reactions to the bears, listed on the Mother Bear Web site, are “heartbreaking,” Philippakis said.  One thank-you e-mail from Franci Hannaway, unit commander of the child protection unit in Port Shepstone, South Africa, is typical of the responses.  “The children,” Hannaway wrote, “love your teddy bears, hold them tight to their tiny little chests, hug and kiss them. Please convey their and my gratitude to all the knitters.”  

“They mean so much to these kids,” Laurence said, “so we are going to continue to knit one night a month for peace even after this project is through. There are so many — domestic projects, international projects, all kinds that we could do.”




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