VITAS Healthcare volunteers can create memory bears from the clothing of deceased loved ones. (Submitted photo)
An area program is creating touching keepsakes from the clothing of loved ones who have passed.
The Memory Bear program is a free benefit for those who lost loved ones who were patients of VITAS Healthcare, a national medical group offering hospice and palliative care.
Seeing a handsewn bear made of a loved one’s treasured garment can bring back precious memories, easing the pain of separation.
The volunteer program began 26 years ago, said Volunteer Service Manager Christine Nelson.
“We provide bereavement support for families for a year after death, and we took it a step further and began creating these bears,” she said. “There are other facilities that made them; not all do that, however. Some make them from t-shirt fabric, but we do it out of clothing.”
There are 12 volunteers currently creating the bears from their homes. Nelson ensures the laundered clothing is delivered to volunteers. Once the bears are completed, she delivers them to appreciative recipients.
“It is incredible, and I am the one who has the hands-on with these families. I talk with them in the beginning about the bears and show them the finished product. It is very heartwarming,” she said. “There are tears and they immediately hug the bears and can’t thank me enough for delivering them.”
Nelson also began putting small cards in the bears with the names of the volunteers who made the bears. This way a recipient can write a thank you note if they wish, give it to her and she will present it to the seamstress.
“In 2020, we have had 140 bears made so far; in comparison, there were 168 made in 2019. We are far ahead of last year,” said Nelson. “Everyone who loses a loved one is offered a memory bear but not all choose to do it. We try and meet the needs of every patient and family, and send information after their loved one dies. They are all offered two bears and if they want more, I will offer them the pattern — I try to meet the needs of all involved.”
Kathy Thomas, a member of St. Paul the Apostle in Racine, began sewing the bears 13 years ago. She keeps a scrapbook with photos of each bear made and a corresponding thank you note if she receives one.
“I have made at least 120 of them and each one takes about 5 to 6 hours from start to finish. I normally don’t look at the clock as I do little parts at a time,” she said. “They give me batting if I want it, but the costs of some of this is part of my ministry and how I look at it as a corporal work of mercy, and to bury the dead and reach out to families afterwards and try to comfort them.”
For those who don’t want a bear but want something to hug when they are feeling blue, Thomas has created pillows out of the clothing. She generally creates them from a shirt.
“The bears though are the most fun to do and even though I use the same pattern for each one, the bears turn out differently each time,” she said. “It is amazing what comes out at the end.”
The toughest bear Thomas has sewn was one made from a U.S. Navy fatigue shirt.
“The reason it was difficult was because the material is like trying to sew through iron,” she said. “There is hand work done on each bear, and that material and needles do not like each other. I put a pocket on each of my bears and that just added to the hand work. I was so happy I could make the bear and leave myself enough material to make a pillow, too.”
The 66-year-old retired in June from her job as a customer service representative. She and her husband, Paul, have been married for 18 years. This is the couple’s second marriage and they have eight children and 14 grandchildren between them. Paul begun studying for the permanent diaconate program in early September.
The VITAS Memory Bear Program is always in need of volunteers to create the bears. The pattern is a simple one with just two pieces and it is up to the creator if they wish to add extra touches, such as buttons, pockets and other trimming.
“Many who make the bears like putting a pocket on the bear to hold maybe a necklace, patches, earrings or something else that was important to the loved one,” said Nelson. “We had one bear that was made with earrings on the ears of the bear that was something that belonged to the mom and was important to her. We are willing to work with anything to make the bear stand out.”
Nelson added that VITAS has other volunteer opportunities in addition to creating the Memory Bears.
“We need volunteers that can visit with patients and right now, that is making phone calls due to COVID,” she said. “We also need paw pal patient volunteers with pets and are looking to add more people to our team. We have many different opportunities and urge people to visit our website or call us if they want to help out.”
To volunteer, visit vitas.com/volunteers or call 414-454-3168.