Loving Teddy Bears
Mankato Nun says Mother Bear Project Represents True Christmas Spirit
By Bob Fenske
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — Sister Lauren Spence slowly and carefully pulled her most prized possession out of its plastic sheaf.
On the piece of paper was a traced hand and a note from a friend in Africa she had never met. The 77-year-old nun then began to read reverently.
“My name is Shila Sunkuta. I am 8 years old. I live with my auntie and I am a double-orphaned child. Thank you for the present.”
Spence has read the note dozens of times, but it still moves her. The words move her. The hand moves her. The dirt left by the fingerprints on that little hand move her.
It is the final inspiration in an inspiring story — a story that has its beginnings in the poverty of southern Africa, moved to the suburbs of the Twin Cities and continues in a retirement home for the School Sisters of Notre Dame.
This is the story of the Mother Bear Project and its ability to move a nun who, freely admits, backed into it and was ready to seize the first opportunity to escape it.
But there are those who believe God inspires people to inspire people. And that is what has happened to Sister Lauren. Like her fellow nuns who live atop Good Counsel hill, she will celebrate Christmas and the birth of Christ. As she does, she will also think of other babes in far-off lands, babes whose lives on Earth have been a living hell.
She will pray for them, and she will pray the teddy bears she has made for them will in some small way bless their lives.
Amy Berman read the newspaper in the comfort of her Minnetonka home. It was a quiet Sunday afternoon last February. As she turned the pages, the 39-year-old mother of two found an article that would change her life forever.
She began to read about the AIDS epidemic and the horrors it has wrought on the African continent.
To describe the epidemic as tragic would be to understate it. Children, by the hundreds of thousands, have been orphaned or infected. Thousands of girls under the age of 10 have been raped because of a horrible myth — having sex with a young virgin makes one immune from AIDS.
Berman read. And a plan began to formulate.
“I remembered my mother had made my kids bears, using patterns from World War II bears made for English children," Berman said. “I knew I had to do something to bring comfort and hope to these children and awareness to others.”
That was 10 months ago. Berman and her project have already sent 1,600 knitted teddy bears to Africa. She wants to send thousands more.
Sister Lauren heard about the project through a fellow nun. “But she didn't know how to knit, so I kind of backed into it,” Spence said. “I thought, ‘Well, I’ll make a couple.’ That was 90-some bears ago.”
Spence has lived a full life. She grew up in Henderson, graduated from Good Counsel Academy in 1944 and professed her vows to become a nun in 1947. She became an art teacher. She also spent a year-and-a-half in Munich and six years in Rome. She helped with missions in Guatemala.
At the end of her teaching career, she completed the circle, returning to southern Minnesota to live with the nuns of the School Sisters of Notre Dame.
Her two bears turned into a dozen, but she vowed to stop at 15. At the time, the Theresa House was being renovated, and one of the construction workers kept glancing at the bears in Spence’s room.
“I asked him, ‘Do you wonder what I'm doing?’”
The man nodded an affirmative. So she told him about the raped little girls in Africa. For a moment, there was nothing but stunned silence. The man picked up a bear and he looked hard at the nun.
“Sister, this is a teddy bear who will go to a child who has nothing, and I mean nothing, and then she will have something.”
The conversation took place months ago, yet it still moves Spence.
“This man's comments ... I couldn't stop after I heard those,” she said with quiet intensity. “I couldn't look God in the eye or myself in the eye if I didn't do something — no matter how small — to help these children who have been so abused.”
So she began to knit anew.
Sister Lauren needed partners, if not the knitting kind, then at least the spiritual kind.
So she went to the nuns in Good Counsel's health-care unit and told the story of Project Mother Bear. And she asked them for their help.
She asked them to come up with color combinations for the teddy bears and to pray for the children who would receive them.
Weeks later, Spence returned with the bears and asked the nuns to hold them.
“I asked them all to say a Hail Mary and a prayer for the little girl who is going to get their bear,” Spence said. “That was one Hail Mary I'll never forget. Never, ever.”
She shipped her first 15 bears to Berman. Berman shipped them to Africa. And soon the thank-you arrived. The trinity of inspirations was complete.
The construction worker, the nuns and a little girl named Shila had conspired to change Sister Lauren's life forever.
Only a beginning
In Minnetonka, Mother Bear Project has become a full-time passion for Berman.
She has created a Web site for the project. She teaches free bear knitting classes twice each month. She speaks to any group willing to listen. In her mind, the teddy bear is more than stuffed yarn. It represents that there is someone halfway around the world who cares about these children.
And it is there where the mother and the nun figuratively meet.
“Her bears are wonderful. They’re all unique but Sister Lauren's bears are truly special.”
Sister Lauren will celebrate Christmas in a country where she sometimes wonders if the art of receiving hasn't buried the wonder of giving.
She has almost 80 bears ready for Africa. They will arrive long after Christmas, but the spirit of the season will travel with those bears.
“They are very simple, the teddy bears, but I hope they represent the most treasured gift we can give — to let someone know they are loved for and cared for and prayed over,” she said.
“When they get there, it will be Christmas for the child. That is my hope. That is my belief.”
Helping the Mother Bear Project
MINNETONKA — Amy Berman is looking for a few good knitters.
Well, actually the founder of the Mother Bear Project, which sends knitted teddy bears to children in Africa who have been afflicted or orphaned by AIDS, is looking for quite a bit more than a few knitters.
“We need to continually find new knitters because of the great need,” Berman said.
The program works like this: Potential knitters send for patterns at $3 a bear. The money helps defray shipping costs the project will incur when it sends bears to Africa. When bears are completed, knitters return the bears to the project, which sends them overseas.
Berman said the project already has distributed more than 1,600 bears to orphaned and homeless children in southern Africa and India. “But AIDS has orphaned more than 11 million kids in Africa alone,” Berman said. “So the need is sadly not going to go away anytime soon .”
For more information on the project, visit www.motherbearproject.org or write the Mother Bear Project at P.O. Box 62188, Minneapolis, MN 55426.
— Bob Fenske