THE VILLAGES — Knitting has been a hobby for Village of Santiago resident Delores Sukennikoff ever since she learned the skill from her mother and aunt as a little girl.
But about a year ago, things changed.
Sukennikoff still was knitting, but her reasons for doing it became different.
Instead of just pursuing knitting as a hobby, Sukennikoff began to knit with a purpose.
“I like to knit, and I wanted to utilize my time with something, a good organization,” she said.
So, she joined the Mother Bear Project group that had begun meeting in The Villages.
The Mother Bear Project is a national nonprofit organization in which members knit small stuffed bears to send to children with HIV and AIDS in Africa and Haiti.
“I thought this project was unique and nice,” she said of the organization. “It makes you feel good because every child should have a toy, and they don’t have any toys. (With the bears) they have something to show their feelings to.”
One year later
Now, a year since its first meeting, The Villages Mother Bear Project has grown to more than 40 active members and has knitted more than 500 bears.
It is a worthwhile project that the group’s founder, Mary Alice Schueler, of the Village of Santiago, said she is proud to see still going strong.
“I think it’s a great accomplishment,” Schueler said. “It’s just a nice organization, and the way people have responded, it’s been very gratifying.”
Schueler got the idea of starting a local Mother Bear group after reading the book “Knitting for Peace” by Betty Christiansen.
From the book, she learned about the Mother Bear Project, which began in Minneapolis, and she decided she wanted to get involved.
After starting out making the bears on her own, she soon got some friends involved.
From there, she realized there might be enough interest for a whole group of Mother Bear knitters in The Villages.
“These are grandma types who enjoy knitting,” Schueler said of the group’s members. “They enjoy the camaraderie of being together, (and) it’s child-oriented. Many of us are grandmothers, and we love children.”
Schueler said the importance of the work really began to hit her when she started receiving photographs from the organization of children with the bears.
“I started seeing pictures of the children with bears, even pictures of my bears with the children,” she said, smiling at the memory.
By herself, Schueler has knitted more than 100 bears for the organization, and she was awarded with a special pin from the Mother Bear Project headquarters to commemorate her accomplishment.
In the next year, Schueler’s sister, Judy Little, said she thinks many more members will succeed in joining the ranks of the “100 Bear Club” because everyone works so hard on making the bears, knowing they are making a child happy somewhere in the world.
“You see these little children with these happy, happy faces,” she said, describing the photographs she’s seen of the children with their bears. “It’s just extremely rewarding.”
Making a special bear
What makes the bears really special is all the attention to detail that the group’s knitters put into each one.
Members spend time choosing particular colors for boys or girls, designing clothing, and adding their own personal touches to the bears they make.
For Sukennikoff, such customization is an important part of the work.
“You try to make the bear come into some kind of character,” she said, holding up a partly-finished bear. “It hasn’t come to life yet. Each (bear) has their own personality. You get attached to them. You want to dress them up.”
As for people who don’t knit but are interested in getting involved with the Mother Bear Project, Little said there are ample opportunities to help.
Donations of yarn and stuffing always are needed, and people can sponsor a bear for $10 through the Mother Bear Project Web site at motherbearproject.org.
The Villages group also accepts monetary donations to help with shipping costs.
Next month, the group is planning a fundraiser with Bob Evans restaurant.
From 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Feb. 11, the Mother Bear Project will receive 15 percent of all of the sales from the Bob Evans restaurant at 2199 Parr Drive in The Villages.
For information, call Little at 350-6199.
The Mother Bear Project meets 1-3 p.m. on the second and fourth Thursdays of every month at El Santiago Recreation Center. For information, call Judy Little at 350-6199.
Caroline Klapper is a reporter with the Daily Sun. She can be reached at 753-1119, ext. 9018, or firstname.lastname@example.org.