Bear Hugs

Bearing witness to a kind heart.



Roberto Gonzalez

I never know when I’m going to come home and find a bear in the condo. 

It’s happened a lot over the past year or so. Often, there are several around, making themselves at home in a chair or on the couch. They generally never stay more than a day and depart rather suddenly. At their next stop, however, their stay will last perhaps forever.

They are teddy bears made by my wife, Michele, for Cornerstone Hospice & Palliative Care. Shortly after she retired as a high school art teacher in late 2015, Michele started volunteering at Cornerstone. At first the work involved acting as a companion to people reaching the end of their lives, or making phone calls to check on grieving families. But then she also was asked to sew some subjects for Cornerstone’s Bear in Mind program, in which articles of clothing belonging to the person who passed away are used to create a bear that can be given to family members as a lasting memory.

The clothing has ranged from a favorite sorority shirt of a college student who died of leukemia, to a New York Giants jersey worn by a man in his 50s, to a housecoat belonging to an elderly woman. A few weeks ago, a small jumper and T-shirt were used to make a bear for a mother who lost her three-week-old. As Michele completed that one, she clutched the bear over her shoulder. “See, the mom can hold the bear like this because it’s about the same size as her baby,’’ she said. “That will mean a lot to her.’’

Michele's trademark on all the bears is a small heart sewn on the chest. But you probably have gathered by now that her heart is exponentially bigger than that. She has created more than 40 bears so far, using a Singer sewing machine her mother gave her 43 years ago. The folks at Cornerstone often tell Michele about families' emotional reaction to receiving the bears, but she generally doesn't meet them—in person, that is. Through the bears, she has met them all.

Which brings me to this: April is National Volunteer Month. There are many opportunities out there to help, to give back. Cornerstone Hospice (web.cshospice.org) is just one. Another is Feeding Children Everywhere. Look at the faces of the people helping pack vital meals for those less fortunate, and you’ll see the pure joy that comes from helping others. Also in that section you’ll find out about Generocity Orlando, an April 26th event sponsored by this magazine aimed at connecting young professionals and nonprofit groups looking for support. 

On the Web, there are countless listings at volunteermatch.org and handsonorlando.com. Or you can  simply search “Orlando volunteer’’ on Google. You might be the perfect person to pitch in on a charity event, or help retirees start a community garden, or interact with shelter dogs or cats to provide socialization and increase their chances of being adopted.

I’m not in the market for a pet right now, unfortunately, because, well, you know—the bears. I do often think about where they will be in a few years, how many times they will have comforted someone, all because someone else cared.

On a recent evening, just before going to bed, I walked into the dining room where a trio of them sat dressed in memories, ready to move out the next morning and go about their compassionate work. I couldn’t help but think of the classic children’s book I used to read to my son—Goodnight Moon, with its great green room, a red balloon and a picture of a cow jumping over the moon. 

And, of course, “three little bears sitting on chairs.’’ 

Goodnight bears. Make us proud

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