HAVERHILL — They chat about family, share recipes, and joke and laugh while crafting cuddly teddy bears destined for children in times of distress.
They call it their “Hug a Bear” program. Each soft and squishy bear they make is filled with love and warm wishes.
Every Thursday morning, about a dozen retired women gather in a basement workshop of the Citizens Center. There, for two hours they stuff and stitch and embroider cuddly teddy bears that are delivered to various agencies for distribution to children. The bears are intended to provide a bit of comfort in times of crisis.
“It soothes them,” said Patricia Leavitt, a member of the group. “It’s something to hold onto.”
These women find stimulation, therapy and camaraderie every time they gather around large work tables to piece their diminutive nine-inch-tall bears together. They produce about 35 of the bears each week, on average.
Each woman has a specific task.
Lillian Brenick works mostly out of her apartment at Merrivista, a senior citizens housing complex on Water Street. She uses different colors and patterns of fabric. She cuts out the front and back pieces of each bear, and then leaves the material at the door of her Merrivista neighbor, Annette Konieczny, who brings them to the Citizens Center workshop for the next steps in the process.
Cecile Lessard and Lucille Rafferty bring home the pieces and stitch them together. They leave each bear open at the bottom in preparation for stuffing them with soft batting.
“If the material is wrinkled, I’ll iron it first,” said Lessard, who spent 47 years working at a dry cleaners.
She said the teddy bear project gives her something positive to do each week.
“The other day, I spent eight hours ironing the material and loved every minute of it,” she said. “I can’t sit at home all day and watch TV.”
Like many of the other women in the group, Lessard volunteers for other programs as well, one of them at the Bedford VA hospital.
“I bring the teddy bears to patients who give them to their grandchildren,” Lessard said. “Our bears really get around.”
Some of the women are in a separate group which makes fleece blankets for needy children, while some volunteer at the Citizens Center on Monday nights to serve meals to people who are homeless or in need of a hot meal.
The final stages of assembling the bears involves stuffing each one with batting donated by the local chapter of the Telephone Pioneers.
There’s always a bag of bamboo chop sticks at the ready for pushing the batting into the ears, hands and feet of each bear.
“This is like Santa’s workshop and we’re like Santa’s elves,” said Patricia Leavitt, who worked in Haverhill’s shoe factories in the late 1940s and early 1950s as a stitcher. “It’s nice not to have a boss standing over you all the time.”
“Working in a dry cleaners is no picnic either,” Lessard said about her former job operating a steam press.
The final steps in making the bears involve stitching the bottoms closed then hand-embroidering the eyes, nose and mouth using different color threads. It takes about an hour to get each face just right.
Larette Gagne finds the work to be therapeutic for her hands.
“Making these bears really helps improve my ability to use my hands,” Gagne said.
The final touch is tying a ribbon around each bear’s neck.
“That’s when they really come alive,” said Delia Perez, a retired nursing aide. “The ribbons give each bear its own personality.”
“One mother told me a story about a car accident she was in and how emergency workers gave her daughter one of our teddy bears,” Annette Konieczny said. “She told me her daughter still has the bear.”
Over the years, the group has donated countless numbers of teddy bears to agencies across the region. They include Merrimack Valley Hospital, Community Action Inc., the Salvation Army, Lazarus House, Appalachia Mission and the Lakota Indian School. They’ve also sent them to areas of the country affected by natural disasters. This retired and senior volunteer program is coordinated by Mary Anne Downs, who, among other things, arranges for distribution of the bears.
Members of the “Hug a Bear” group include Marie Gelinas, Patricia Currence, Patricia Leavitt, Lucille Rafferty, Annette Konieczny, Lillian Brenick, Delia Perez, Dolly Readon, Cecile Lessard, Francine Keenan, Ysaura Ramona, Mary Tracy, Larette Gagne and Beverly Cerulo.