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Yarn, Needles and Time Show Love for African Kids Affected by HIV/AIDS
By James Dowd
February 25, 2006
Published in The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tennessee

The dozen or so knitters maintain a steady, rhythmic pace, multicolored yarn stitches revealing an eclectic array of accomplishment and ability. Sitting around a table at Temple Israel in East Memphis, the women discuss kids, grandkids and a new spinning class that's supposed to work wonders.

Memphis Bears
Memphis Knitters
Photos by Alan Spearman/The Commercial Appeal
Temple Israel's Women Sisterhood group -- (from left) Margie Kerstine, Bonnie Cooper, Alice Drake, Emilie Ratner, Bryna , Jenny Baer and JoAnne Fusco -- knits toy bears.  Women from Temple Israel have made these bears, which will be sent to Minneapolis for shipment to children in Africa affected by HIV/AIDS. The group meets at 1:30 p.m. Thursdays.

In what for many seems like no time at all, the knitters will craft huggable symbols of love and comfort for children they'll never see. And then they'll do it again.

The group is part of the "Mother Bear Project," a Minneapolis-based organization that sends hand-knit bears to children affected by HIV/AIDS in Africa. A handful of women recently formed a local chapter and hope others will join the effort.

"We just need knitters," says Jenny Baer, who established the group at Temple Israel. "But if you don't knit, that's OK. We also need folks to stuff the bears and put them together."

It's an inexpensive and quick way to make a difference in the life of a child, Baer says. Startup cost is under $20 -- which includes the pattern, yarn and needles -- and a bear can be created in a few hours.

The group meets at 1:30 p.m. each Thursday at Temple Israel for a couple of hours in what Bryna Woodman describes as a "modern sewing circle or a quilting bee." Knitters may provide their own materials or buy them along with the bear pattern when they arrive.

At meetings there are cookies, soft drinks and plenty of laughs to go around. Some bears are begun while others receive finishing touches and now and again a novice receives a helpful tip from a seasoned pro.

"It's fun and it's meaningful," Woodman says. "Let's face it, there are just so many scarves you can knit. This is about doing something special for a child."

Once completed, bears are affixed with tags signed by the knitters and then shipped to Minneapolis. Once there, red felt hearts are sewn on and then they're on the way to Africa. To date, more than 9,100 have been sent.

JoAnne Fusco has been knitting for years and immediately fell in love with the project. She works on five or six bears at a time, each in different colors and at different stages.

"Sometimes I'll work for a while on one I've just started and then I'll work on one that's closer to being finished," Fusco says. "It's relaxing and I can finish one in an evening. It's simple."

As if to prove her point, Fusco demonstrates a basic technique to a skeptical Debbie Ognibene. Within minutes, the doubter is a doer, gaining confidence with every stitch.

"I can't believe I'm knitting!" Ognibene says. "If I can do this, anybody can. I mean, it's not rocket science."

And it's not just for women, either. The group hopes men -- young and old -- as well as organizations such as Girl Scouts and other congregations will embrace the project.

"Knitting is so popular right now that once people find out about this they're really enthused," Baer says. "It a way to take your skill, whatever the level, and put it to good use for a great cause."

-- James Dowd: 529-2737


Mother Bear Project

For:  Folks who love to knit and those willing to learn
When: Thursdays, 1:30 p.m.
Where: Temple Israel, 1376 E. Massey
Why:  To create handmade bears for children in Africa suffering from HIV/AIDS
How:  For more information, call 680-0579; on the Web, go to

                                            Mother Bear Project • PO Box 62188 • Minneapolis, MN 55426 • Email Contact