IVAN STEGIC: Hi there! You’re listening to ONE OF 8 BILLION, a podcast about all of us! I’m your host, Ivan Stegic. This podcast is supported by TEN7, a technology studio whose mission is to Make Things That Matter. Online at ten7.com
We all have a story, don’t we? We’ve all had successes and failures, joy and disappointment, love and sadness. And yet, we’ve all made it to here… to right now! Our stories are one amongst eight billion others… eight billion other stories, each of them unique, each of them grand in their own way, and each of them a window into the humanity that connects us all. ONE OF 8 BILLION tells life stories from around the world. Let's listen.
Our story today is about Amy Berman, the founder of the Mother Bear Project. Amy’s story shows that you can’t always predict your path or how you’re going to make a difference, but if you follow your heart you can touch the lives of people around the world. Let’s listen.
IVAN: Welcome to ONE OF 8 BILLION, would you please introduce yourself.
AMY BERMAN: My name is Amy Berman. I'm the founder of MOTHER BEAR PROJECT. I'm a mom of two and a new grandma to one. I have a 10 month old little baby grandson. So that's been very exciting and fun. I like to walk my dog. I love to garden. I like to knit bears, and I love to travel.
IVAN: What kind of dog do you have?
AMY: Yes, I have a Golden Retriever. The really interesting thing about her is, she was rescued from the meat trade of China. She was rescued off a truck heading to the slaughterhouse. She's a really good girl.
IVAN: My goodness. How long ago was that?
AMY: Well, we adopted her about three years ago. So, we've had her. And she definitely has some street dog tendencies. She's very street smart. She can catch a fly in mid-air. She can eat a mouse like nobody's business.
IVAN: Tell me a little bit about your now. What are you doing these days? What are you thinking about? What's preoccupying you?
AMY: I've got a lot of things going on. Number one, I guess is, my grandson is very much in my life, I help take care of him. I'm running Mother Bear Project. I feel like it's actually more like when I started the project, it's making a full circle right now, because I started it from my home, and I'm back in my home. After some number of years, I had huge groups around town that were helping do things like sew on the hearts of the bears and pack the bears.
But now we've stopped all group activities since COVID started, because they were all indoors. And so, I'm packing bears in my basement as I did when I first started. And my mom who's 90 is sewing on about 1000 hearts on the bears every single month. So that's pretty cool.
IVAN: Wow, put your mom to use and work.
IVAN: That’s great. Wow, that’s awesome.
AMY: She actually loves it.
IVAN: That's wonderful. So, I want to ask about Mother Bear, but not just yet. I want to hear about where you live. And have you always lived where you live right now? I want to hear about where you grew up.
AMY: Okay, well, I was born in Minneapolis, and spent a good part of my childhood in Omaha of all places, Omaha, Nebraska. And then as an adult, I moved to Seattle, and stayed in the Pacific Northwest for about 14 years. And when my kids were young, I decided to move back to Minneapolis to be closer to family. So here we are. We've been here for about 22 years. And that's where I'm from.
IVAN: And what is your earliest memory of Minneapolis?
AMY: That's funny. I've got a pretty good memory. But I'm sentimental about old restaurants and things like that. I was just talking to someone today about the Jolly Troll that used to be here. I don't know, I think I went there once. As far as memories of Minneapolis, nothing really stands out. I was happy here. I remember how the window wells used to be filled with salamanders, and I don't know what happened to them. That's kind of something I've been thinking about actually, Where have the salamanders gone? They used to be everywhere. We used to play with them.
IVAN: Yeah, I think I've been thinking about that as well. Not particularly salamanders, but things that have been around in my early life that I maybe don't see anymore. How young were you when you left Minneapolis?
AMY: I left after fourth grade. So, I don't know exactly what age that is, but that's when I left.
IVAN: Fourth grade, I'm going to guess 10. I don't really know either.
AMY: Okay. That sounds good. Yeah, that sounds good. Let's say 10.
IVAN: Did you have an idea of what you wanted to do with your life when you were 10, say? Did you have a grand plan?
AMY: I did. I always thought that I wanted to write in some form. I loved children's books, I thought I would be a children's story author. I really loved words, and I thought that I would be a copywriter. And so, I went to college to study journalism and copywriting, but there were different plans in store.
IVAN: In college, what were you studying?
AMY: I actually went to University of Missouri, their journalism school. I went to Seattle, because my husband and I chose that as a destination for his graduate school, because we really wanted to hike in the mountains, and so that's what we did for years. I love the mountains, and we will travel there any chance we get.
IVAN: Why did you end up in Missouri at that school? What was the motivation there?
AMY: It was just the journalism school. The journalism school had a very good reputation, and I wanted to go to a journalism school.
IVAN: What was the origin story for Mother Bear? Tell us what Mother Bear is, and then talk about what the original origin story?
AMY: Mother Bear Project is a nonprofit organization that I started 19 years ago that sends knit and crocheted Teddy Bears to children in mostly sub-Saharan Africa that are in regions that are highly affected by HIV and AIDS. And the sole purpose of this project is to send comfort to the children and to let them know that someone cares. So that's the Mother Bear Project.
The way it got started, I was working, I was going about my life, I had two young children at home, and I read an article that basically stopped me in my tracks, written by Samantha Power and it was about the problem of baby and infant rape in South Africa, because of the myth that having sex with a virgin will cure someone of AIDS. And I couldn't believe it. It was just the most horrifying thing I could even fathom.
And so I took a moment to gather myself, but then in this article was asking for items of comfort for these young victims. And I knew that I had to do something. What was it going to be? I was thinking about my kids and what brought them comfort. And I thought of the little Teddy Bears that my mother had knit for them and she personalized their bears. My daughter's bear had embroidered braces, because she had braces at the time. And my son's bear had one eyebrow, because she always would kiss him on his left eyebrow. So they've always kept these bears close.
And I thought That's it, I am going to knit bears. And I'm going to talk to people about this problem, which I had read about on the internet. After I read the article, I needed to make sure that this was really a thing. And sure enough it was a thing all over sub-Saharan Africa. So if items of comfort was what was wanted, that's what I was going to do. The big problem was, I knew I wanted to make these bears, but I had taken a two hour knitting course in college, which was about 22 years prior. And so, I had to ask my mom to show me how to cast on stitches and how to knit again.
So I muddled through the first bear, and then I started telling people wherever I went about this, and asking them if they knit or crocheted, and I rewrote the pattern to be simple as it can be. And I told people that I would teach them to knit if they would make a bear. So I started inviting people into my home, completely out of character for me, to do that kind of thing. I collected yarn. I began basically teaching loads of people to knit, if you can believe it, because I could hardly knit myself. That was the beginning.
And then when we had maybe 25 bears or so, not very many, the Star Tribune somehow caught wind of this and wrote an article about this effort. And it was funny, I borrowed my sister's P.O. Box because she had a business, and I put that in the article for people to order patterns. And when I went the next day after the article came out, it was like a cartoon. I opened this small PO Box door and pattern requests were just like pouring onto the floor. It was very funny. I'll never forget that.
IVAN: Oh, I believe it. That must have been such an experience for you.
AMY: It was wild. And then two different attorneys offered to help me get nonprofit status and I was so in the moment with this, that I didn't realize even why I would want nonprofit status. Of course I knew what a nonprofit organization was, but I didn't really think about this in terms of my life was completely changing. not really comprehending that doing that meant that I would be running a nonprofit organization. I just wanted to send comfort, that's what I was after.
IVAN: And so you have. You said you started this 19 years ago, so that would place us at around 2003.
I grew up in South Africa, so I'm very familiar with most of the myths, all of the myths at least that I had access to when I was there. I emigrated in 2000 and I remember that this was a myth back even in the 90s. It wasn't something that cropped up in the early aughts. So it's been around for a long time. And I did not know that it was more prevalent than South Africa. So, you're saying that this is in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa?
AMY: Right? Well, the different countries I've visited, it's been discussed that, yes, this goes on here, too. So I'm just assuming more than South Africa, this article was about South Africa. I don't need any proof of what's going on where, I decided that there's so many children orphaned, either single or double orphans, and whether they've lost one or both parents to HIV and AIDS that's enough, these kids are going to have something to hold onto. Because the kids who get these bears have never had a toy in their lives, they're using glass bottles as a doll, that kind of thing. I just really wanted to send comfort to these children.
IVAN: Tell me about the very first package you sent. Tell me about where it went and how you found that family, and are you still in contact with them? What does that look like?
AMY: I sent the first box of bears to the police unit in South Africa near Port Elizabeth, Port Shepstone was the name.
IVAN: Oh, yes, Port Shepstone, I know that. Yes.
AMY: Oh, you do? Okay.
IVAN: Oh, of course. Yes.
AMY: That’s funny. I've never been there but that's where the first box went, and I heard that they did get there. But there were a lot more bears after that. So, it's funny how things develop. For many years the Peace Corps unofficially helped me distribute bears, up until COVID, when they all had to go home. So that's another way the bears have been distributed.
One really important part of this project for me, is that they're given unconditionally. I'm not a missionary and these bears are made by people of all faiths. And so, I just want them to be given unconditionally. I do anyway, but that's how they're given. They're not even given for holidays or anything like that. They have to be just simply given with love as they are intended.
IVAN: That's a wonderful motivation to be able to do that. Do you have any metrics or any counts around how many bears have been made? How many bears have been sent?
AMY: Oh yeah. I can tell you I've sent 187,500 bears to date.
IVAN: Wow. That's incredible. That's almost 200,000 lives that you've touched in Africa.
AMY: I'm just helping. Because I'm definitely not doing all the knitting. There's amazing people that have made over 2000 bears. We have 100 Bear Club, and there's over 300 people who have made over 100 bears. That's a lot. There's a lot of people out there who are doing it.
IVAN: How many has your mom made in her lifetime?
AMY: That's funny. My mom, she doesn't keep count, that would be my mom, she’s extremely selfless. My mom actually makes bears that she doesn't sign her name to, because all the bears wear tags that say With Love, Mother Bear, and then the person who makes the bear signs their first name. But my mom makes her bears and she puts on a blank tag so that people can sponsor bears for $10. You can sponsor a bear and have any name on it that you want, for someone's anniversary, or, a memorial gift or a birthday gift for someone. So, I have a number of many bears just always on hand for people to sponsor and my moms are in there.
IVAN: And how have the bears changed over the last 20 years? Has the pattern changed? Has the color changed? Tell us a little bit around the parameters of what that looks like.
AMY: Okay, there used to be just one pattern. And if there's any knitters out there, it was a flat knitting pattern where you had to seam up the sides of the bear. But then, we had a lot of demand for people who wanted the bears seamless, because people who know more than I do about knitting, like to do things in the round like socks. A bear maker who knows a lot about knitting developed a knit in the round pattern. Then people wanted a crochet pattern. So someone came up with a crochet pattern, and then a crochet in the round pattern.
So we have four patterns for these bears that you can order from our website. That's pretty much it, all the bears we send out are from our patterns. We don't accept people's stuffed animals or some other pattern, we want them all to basically look the same, even though they all look different. Another really cool thing, I have a gift for facial recognition. How do you like that?
IVAN: That’s great.
AMY: Yeah. So I get pictures from the people who distribute the bears in Africa. I get loads and loads and loads of photos. And I'm able to email people because I recognize their bears. So there's that.
IVAN: That's great. That's really great. If I wanted to get involved in learning how to knit, if I just wanted to make a donation to your project, what do I do? Do I go to the website? Do I download a pattern? What does that look like?
AMY: Well, we actually don't have the patterns downloadable. It’s pretty old fashioned, I send them out. So, you can order the pattern through our website, which is motherbearproject.org and I mail them out to you promptly with a little brochure, so you can read more about the project. And then I'm no longer teaching people to knit unless you want a little private lesson, I guess, I would give one to you. But basically that's it.
And you can also donate from the homepage of our website if you are interested in that. And all the donations help us ship the bears because people send in three dollars. After their first bear they mail three dollars for every bear, because that used to a little more than cover the cost of shipping a bear 19 years ago. But now it doesn't cover the costs. So, we're always looking for shipping funds, because it's very, very expensive, and I pay the duty on the receiving end as well. So, I don't know, it’s quadrupled since I started.
IVAN: So I get a pattern, I teach myself to knit or crochet, I knit something, I knit 10 bears, and then what do I do after I've knit those bears?
AMY: Well, on the pattern itself, it says where to mail them back. If you're in the Twin Cities, you can actually drop them off at Wild Rumpus Bookstore. If you're near that in Linden Hills. We just ask that you leave a check for Bear Fare, which is the three dollars per bear after your first bear and we'll pick them up there. Or if you're out of the city limits or whatever, if that's not convenient, you can just mail them to our PO Box. I go to the post office multiple times a week to pick up boxes of bears. I get about 1000 a month.
IVAN: Are there groups that get together and knit at the same time?
AMY: There used to be, not now, there’s no group activity. There used to be in various states and all that. But it's become very solitary again.
IVAN: You could probably have a Zoom party, and everybody could knit and listen to music at the same time virtually.
AMY: That sounds fun.
IVAN: Sounds like a lot of fun.
AMY: It really does. I really miss all the heart sewing groups, we had two every month in the Twin Cities, and friendships were made. There have been a lot of friendships made through this project.
We have a group on Ravelry, which is social media for knitters and crocheters. We have a Mother Bear group there, if anyone wants to join that. It’s pretty awesome, that group, they give tips on accessories and things for your bears and how to perfect the bear and little contests and things.
IVAN: And how often do you send bears to Africa?
AMY: That's another good question. It's changed since COVID. Now I'm sending huge groups every few months, as opposed to sending out bears every week.
IVAN: They get distributed through contacts that you have there? How does Africa get those?
AMY: Well, there are contacts that I've met along the way. We’ve had bears go to camps in South Africa for vulnerable children that are sponsored by Safari Outfitters that have these camps to teach the children about taking care of the wilderness that surrounds them and keeping it healthy for future generations. They will have a camp where they teach children everything relating to that, as well as information on HIV and AIDS. And they've been known to give out our bears and people I've met along the way, they've given out bears, but the people that work there, and other people that I've met, have basically been kind enough to donate bears outside of that. So, our bears are going to very rural schools mostly, that's where a lot of them are going. They've gone to feeding centers, that kind of thing.
IVAN: It's so wonderful that you're having this positive impact on people on the other side of the planet. What has been your greatest struggle in life, or perhaps with the project? What's been the hardest thing?
AMY: It's easy for me to tell you about my biggest struggles with the project. That's simple. For me, it's the computer and all the troubles I've had along the way. So that's a really boring thing to say, except that it's true. I've had computer horror stories. The computer stuff. And photos coming to me in so many different formats and having to get good at that, when it's something I'm completely not interested in. It’s really been my biggest struggle.
The one thing I do want to add, though, is that I guess I never expected this project to mean as much to the people making the bears as the children receiving them. And that's really been a beautiful thing to witness.
IVAN: How do you see the Mother Bear Project evolving in the next 10 to 20 years? And how will the next generation see the project and how will that continue?
AMY: That's a really good question and something I think about from time to time. I can't really answer that except to say that my desire is for this project to always be unconditional. I am hoping that it will always stay that way because I've guarded it like a hawk. I really have. Like a mother bear, I should say. I've really tried to keep it very pure and only do what it was set out to do. And I think I've done a pretty good job of that. And if it's going to stay, I would only want it to be that way. Make sure that these are given unconditionally to the right children to get in the right hands, every box is accounted for and all that.
IVAN: And what brings you joy these days? What makes you smile?
AMY: Well, my grandson for sure. Every single day I get to see changes that I may not have had time to notice when I was a young mom myself. So, it's really awesome watching him discover the world. It's really beautiful. I love it. I love tending to my garden, I'm somebody who enjoys pulling weeds for relaxation, it gives me a lot of joy.
IVAN: You can come over anytime Amy, to pull our weeds.
AMY: That’s so funny because sometimes I take walks and I'm just dying to pull their weeds. It's funny. But I think outside of that, I think just hiking in the mountains that's just my favorite thing to do. I love that so much. I love seeing wildflowers, I love mountains. I enjoy hiking, that's pretty much me.
IVAN: There's some peace that you can get from doing that and tranquility and clearing your head by doing that.
AMY: Exactly, in a very chaotic world. These things have been here forever, and there's something about immersing yourself in it, that problems and troubles and whatever's on your mind can melt away. So that's what I enjoy.
IVAN: Are you reading anything that's interesting right now that you're thinking about?
AMY: I started the latest book by Gayle Sugiyama, but I drop every night. It takes me having to go on vacation to really get into my books. And then I just read. But no, no, I'm not. There's nothing right now that I can even shout out that I recommend.
IVAN: Well, I appreciate you taking the time to tell us about Mother Bear and to tell us a little bit about yourself as well. I do have one more question. What do you hope you'll see in your lifetime, maybe with the project, or maybe something that you haven't seen in the world before, that you hope to see?
AMY: Well, I would love to see people come together and realize we have more similarities than differences and work together for a more unified country and world. I also would love to travel to Iceland. That's something I would love to do. I haven't done that yet.
I'm so pleased with the way this project runs that I don't have any goals per se, I just want it to keep going as it's gone for many years.
I have a really sweet story about a child-headed household where the parents have both died of AIDS, and the children were living by themselves, and this particular group of children had four young children in the household. And, it was the rainy season and their house, which I'm assuming was pieced together, was falling apart.
And so, the oldest child, “We need to get out of this house. It's falling apart. We have to get out.” So all four children left the house, and the youngest one who happened to be a little boy of eight years old said, “I have to go back, I forgot my bear.” And the sibling said, “Don't do it. The house could fall on you.” But the child ran back and got his bear, and then the older sibling said, “Why in the world would you risk your life to go back and get your bear?” And he said, “Because my bear has a heart on it, and it means that someone loves me.”
These bears are really letting kids know they're all so unique, and they're knit, they're all handmade. And I just feel like the kids can feel the love knit into each one.
IVAN: I think you're right. I think they can feel it. I think that we're all the same role, one of ONE OF 8 BILLION on the planet, and there are different ways of connecting with other humans. The internet has been so good at doing that for us. But there are other ways and perhaps those other ways are unappreciated, and you're definitely connecting people on the planet in different ways. And there may not be a cord or a wireless signal, but there's definitely a connection of love that that little child felt and needed to be able to get that Mother Bear from that house. That's wonderful.
AMY: One more thing too. You probably are familiar with the word Ubuntu.
IVAN: Ubuntu, of course.
AMY: Yeah, and the African philosophy, meaning my humanity is connected to yours. And it's really what has driven me my whole life which is why I felt like I needed to do something. I had no connection to Africa. I had no connection to HIV and AIDS in my life, yet I just feel like the Bears certainly are not everything, they’re just a little something. But maybe if everyone could do a little something, the world would be a better place. That's it.
IVAN: What a wonderful sentiment. If everyone could do a little something, the world would be a better place. I wholeheartedly agree. Thank you for your time with me today, Amy. It's been so awesome talking to you.
AMY: Thank you so much.
IVAN: I hope you’ll join us in the next episode of ONE OF 8 BILLION, when we hear from Ashley Krohn, a librarian and educator at Edina Public Schools.
ASHLEY KROHN: Minnesota is one of nineteen states that doesn't require a school librarian. And yet we're in a literacy crisis if you've been paying attention to the news. I don't think it's the only reason why we're having a literacy crisis in the state of Minnesota, but in this instance, correlation and causation, they go hand in hand.
This has been ONE OF 8 BILLION, a podcast about all of us, online at 1of8b.com. Join us again next time as we listen to one of eight billion other stories!
This is episode 140 of ONE OF 8 BILLION. It was recorded on August 8, 2022 and first published on August 17, 2022. Audio length is 27 minutes. Transcription by Roxanne Chumucas. Summary, highlights and editing by Brian Lucas. Music by Lexfunk. Produced by Jonathan Freed.