She can’t see very well, but spunky Hazel Strickland, 93, of the Linden Hills neighborhood doesn’t let macular degeneration slow her fingers from twisting cherry-red yarn around a pair of knitting needles into a stuffed Elmo teddy bear.
She knits for children affected by AIDS in Africa.
Strickland and about 30 other women — ranging in age from their early 20s to 93 — gather once a month at Turtle Bread Company, 3421 W. 44th St., to knit bears for children in Africa orphaned by or suffering from AIDS.
"[AIDS] makes us so sad we want to cry," said St. Louis Park resident Pat Foulkes, 62, as she wove chocolate brown yarn into the head of her 28th teddy at Turtle Bread. "But we don’t cry. We knit."
The teddies they send to Africa — Strickland has knitted more than 100 — represent a fraction of the 24,450 hand-knitted bears delivered to children in 14 African countries through the nonprofit Minneapolis-based Mother Bear Project.
"We hope that they feel like someone cares," Strickland said. "If they’re getting the message, I’m happy about it."
Amy Berman, 44, of Minnetonka, started the project after reading an article in 2003 about baby rape and a myth among AIDS-infected men in South Africa, that sex with a virgin can cure the disease.
"I was someone who carried the weight of the world on my shoulders," she said. "When I read this, it was the worst thing I had ever heard. I thought, ‘What can I do?’"
The article requested items of comfort for children. Berman decided a bear like the knitted and stuffed one her mother made for her as a child could also cheer a child halfway around the world.
She knitted her first in 2003 and friends began meeting in her home to make more of them for African youngsters.
"There were friends and there were friends of friends and there were strangers," Berman said. "I was teaching them, which was kind of a joke, because I could hardly knit at all."
A month into the project, the Star Tribune ran an article about the project. Within two weeks, Berman received 800 orders for patterns.
Soon, her house had filled with teddies from around the country destined for Africa.
Five years later, with a website, a mailbox and an unheated storage unit, Berman’s single teddy bear has expanded into her full-time job as the project’s director. She now sends bear patterns and kits ($15 for a pattern, needles and yarn) to knitters in every state and eight countries, receives and stores finished bears until the once-a-month shipping day and makes distribution contacts in Africa. She brainstorms for fundraisers (most recently, note cards displaying photos of children holding their teddies on the front and the knitters on the back) and sends thank-you notes and buttons to knitters.
And Berman still finds time to regularly meet with friends — who have become more like family — to make the stuffed animals.
"I wasn’t out to start a nonprofit," said Berman, a mother of two teenagers. "I just wanted to send comfort to these children."
Sending a message of love
Berman has twice visited Africa to view the toll of AIDS on African families and to distribute bears. She said she hopes to return to Africa next fall to meet her growing number of affiliated teddy bear distributors.
Berman described the epidemic’s prevalence with stories of visits to cemeteries where truckload after truckload brought piled bodies and family groups dug holes to bury loved ones. And the numbers of orphans she saw staggered her.
"Everyone is taking in AIDS orphans," she said. "When I was in Zambia, there were still 65,000 orphans walking around on the streets with nowhere to go."
But as children in Africa are losing their parents to the virus, Berman wants to send them a message through her organization: People half a world away love them. That’s why each bear receives a sewn-on red felt heart and a knitter-signed placard attached to its wrist.
For at least one orphan, the love of a teddy — and its knitter— was worth risking his life to save.
Berman received word from South Africa that one 8-year-old orphan boy ran into his house as it collapsed under torrential rains to rescue his teddy bear. He later said he returned to the falling structure for his stuffed animal because, "My bear has a heart on it, and I know someone loves me."
The United Nations AIDS response team recently reported that of the estimated 33.2 million people worldwide living with AIDS in 2007, 22.5 million of them lived in sub-Saharan Africa.
And according to President Bush’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, more than 14 million children worldwide have lost one or both parents to AIDS.
Berman’s mother, Gerre Hoffman, 75, of St. Louis Park, whose teddy bears first inspired the project, said giving a child a handmade teddy goes a long way toward making them happy in the midst of surrounding misery.
"We cannot feed everyone, we cannot cure everyone," she said. "But we can give a little humanity."
Whitney A. Stewart grew up in the Kenny neighborhood. In addition to writing locally, she also reports for the Jackson Citizen Patriot and the Hillsdale College Collegian in Michigan.