A Minneapolis mom read about the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa and was moved to help. The response to her Mother Bear Project has been nothing short of remarkable. 
Amy Berman
Amy Berman
| Credit: Courtesy of Mother Bear Project

Amy Berman was raising two young children and working as an advertising sales rep in Minneapolis when she read a story about how HIV and AIDS were affecting African children. She wanted to help by sending items of comfort for kids and decided to knit bears. Fast-forward 20 years: Berman's Mother Bear Project is now a nonprofit with knitters and crocheters around the world pitching in to help, and more than 190,000 bears have been sent to sub-Saharan Africa.

How did you get the idea to knit bears?

A police unit in South Africa was asking for items of comfort for young victims of families affected by HIV and AIDS. I thought of the bears my mother had knitted from a World War II-era pattern for my own kids, and how much my children loved them. It seemed to me that it would make a child feel special to have something special made for them.

Did you know how to knit?

Not really; I had taken one knitting class! I had to ask my mom how to cast on and how to make one of these bears. Then I had to make pattern very, very simple so others could do it.

Bear hugs wreath
Credit: Courtesy of Mother Bear Project

Did you start off with the idea of forming a nonprofit?

No, I always call this an accidental nonprofit. I just wanted to send comfort. At first, I invited people in my home once a week and we would make maybe 25 or so bears. Those who didn't know how to knit, I would teach them. We sent the first bears to the police unit. Then, the local paper did a story about this. People reached out to me who wanted to help. I had to figure out where all this was going. There was so much interest that I finally filed for non-profit status and quit my full-time job. I gave the project its name, the Mother Bear Project, because my son, who was maybe 8 at the time, would call me Mother Bear.

So now you work with crafters around the world?

Yes! We even have hundreds of people in our "Hundred Bear Club" (they've made at least 100 bears). You can see on our website all the states and countries that have participated.

Amy Berman packing bears
Credit: Courtesy of Mother Bear Project

Tell us how the process works.

People can order a pattern for $5 or a $25 kit—kits have knitting needle or crochet hooks, yarn, a pattern and a tag. We have drop-off location for finished bears in several Midwest locations, or bears can be mailed to me in Minneapolis. We pay shipping for your first bear to Africa; after that, we ask that crafters send $3 per bear to help with shipping. We send 50 bears in every box, and overall, I send about 1,000 bears a month to Africa. We don't specifically send bears now to children who have experienced HIV or AIDS in their life; we sent them all throughout sub-Saharan Africa, because the whole region has been affected.

Are all the bears the same?

Each is the same size (about 12" or less) but knitters and crocheters can customize the clothing and face. Each bear has a felt heart and a tag that reads "With love, Mother Bear" and the signature of the maker. So really they are all unique.

Have you been to Africa? Have you seen the impact of your project?

I've been to Africa seven times, and yes, I get feedback every time a box is sent. One of the stories I think about is about an orphaned child who lived with his siblings. Their house was falling apart because of a torrential rainstorm. The little boy ran back to the house to get his bear even though his older siblings urged him not to. When asked why he risked his life, the child said, because my bear has a heart on it and it means someone loves me. The whole point of this project is to send unconditional love and comfort.

How to Help

Crafters can buy patterns or kits; non-crafters can sponsor bears, donate online to help pay shipping fees for bears or purchase Mother Bear gifts. All ways to help are listed here.

As part of our Good Neighbors program, highlighting unique Midwest nonprofits and individuals making our communities stronger, Midwest Living has donated $500 to Mother Bear Project.