Published in the Independent on Saturday, 12 July 2003
by Megan Power
American mother of two Amy Berman has never been to South Africa. But 150 of her knitted teddy bears have, and at least another 400 are waiting to be shipped out this week. Their initial destination is the Port Shepstone Child Protection Unit on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast; their final resting place the arms of traumatised children who routinely arrive on the unit's doorstep beaten, battered and, often, raped.
One of thousands of Americans moved to act after reading an article on South African child rape in one of their local magazines, the 39-year-old stay-at-home mum from Minnesota receives nothing in return, bar the satisfaction she's making a difference. "I could not just close the magazine and continue with my everyday life knowing there were children in such pain," said Berman from her Minneapolis home this week.
"I knew I could not solve the 'big problem' from here, but I thought maybe I could bring awareness of this problem and provide comfort to the young victims in the form of a teddy," she said.
After digging out her 70-year-old mother's World War II-era teddy bear knitting pattern, the inexperienced knitter quickly encouraged neighbours and friends to get involved in weekly knitting lessons in her home, teaching up to 150 women how to knit.
After Berman's local newspaper highlighted her efforts in mid-March, she was inundated with hundreds of requests from fellow Americans keen to lend a hand to help the South African victims. The teddy bear campaign, now known as the Mother Bear Project, has attracted more than 1000 knitters, including girl scouts, sports teams, rape survivors, scholars and nuns.
"Over 100 patterns have been requested," said Berman, who now teaches a free bear-knitting class monthly at a large local bookstore. "I have had women in their 90s send for patterns, saying they thought they were too old to have anything left to contribute to the world. This project is a way for them to feel of use again."
Berman sends the bears first-class to South Africa, which still takes up to six weeks. She waits until she has arrival confirmation from unit commander Franci Hannaway before she sending more. The bears, which each take about 10 hours to make, cost less than $2 (R14) to make, Berman said.
People send her $3 (about R20) and a self-addressed stamped envelope for the pattern and a tag on which the knitter signs her first name. Once received, Berman sends them out; so far it's cost more than R3 500.
"Most people send me back more than one bear. I received 23 from one person in the mail last week," said Berman. "I receive bears and pattern requests almost daily."
Berman has since added Zambian Aids orphans to her list of bear beneficiaries and has also sent a box of bears to the Teddy Bear Clinic for Abused Children in Johannesburg.
"I would love to visit South Africa and meet Franci and learn of other ways to help these victims. I know I would be overwhelmed by the beauty and the pain of the country," she said.