Charlie Merrow has made immense contributions to the Mother Bear Project without ever picking up a single knitting needle or ball of yarn. As a Peace Corps volunteer in the KwaZulu-Natal province on the eastern coast of South Africa, Merrow has distributed 100 bears to children in his community.
“Many volunteers here in South Africa, and all over Africa, participate in distributing Mother Bears,” Merrow said. “And most will say that it is one of the most rewarding experiences of their service.”
KwaZulu-Natal has some of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS of anywhere in the world. Merrow works on HIV/AIDS outreach by educating the community and working to raise awareness, particularly among youth, orphans, and vulnerable children.
“I spend my time all over the community attempting to help as much as possible where ever I’m needed, be it at the schools, the community center, or with my host family helping host siblings with homework,” Merrow said. “I also volunteer at the one and only community based NGO in my village that distributes ARV medications, has a bi-monthly clinic, and feeds the orphans and vulnerable children of the community.”
Merrow also teaches Life Orientation classes to seventh grade students at the village primary school. He teaches the students about general health and nutrition, as well as other life skills.
“Recently, I started an after school Boys Club to provide a safe environment for grade seven boys to come together and to grow as intelligent and responsible individuals, while learning valuable life lessons and skills to enhance their futures,” Merrow said.
But Merrow insists that one of his most rewarding experiences during his service has been distributing Mother Bears.
When he received his first 50 bears, Merrow gave them to the children who came to the community center every day to eat lunch. The majority of the children are orphans due to HIV/AIDS, and the bears were their first and only toys. The second shipment was donated to the crèche—the village kindergarten—where the children were equally overjoyed.
“The community I live in is extremely poor and very rural,” Merrow said. “The majority of families in the village simply do not have the resources to provide toys to their children. The money that families do make must go to food, shelter, and water, so toys are merely not a priority in the rural villages.”
Merrow explained that the bears are particularly important to the thousands of children who have been orphaned by HIV/AIDS in South Africa.
“The bears represent love,” he said. “Love is something that every human being needs and requires and is something many orphaned children are missing.”
Merrow also expressed his gratitude to all of the knitters who have contributed bears: “The work you are doing at Mother Bear Project is amazing and, although you do not get to hand out every bear you knit yourself, know that your work is appreciated by both the volunteers who distribute them and by the children who receive your work and will always love their bear.”