In a warm room, with the door slightly cracked for circulation, the 15 women chatted casually as they concentrated on sewing buttons, repairing tears, darkening noses, restuffing as needed, inspecting for safety issues, and smoothing fly-away hairs.
These Mountain Bear Fan Club volunteers meet twice a month to separate the large from the small, or according to special holidays. They not only sort "Teddy's" but all kinds of stuffed animals from aardvarks and snakes to Wizard of Oz characters and Homer Simpson. Then there are those items that leave the members scratching their heads as they make guesses as to exactly what that particular item actually could be.
Even with such a small Mountain Area membership of 35 or so, this group is recognized as one of the largest gifting groups generally distributing more than 10,000 stuffed animals annually within the worldwide organization of Good Bears of the World.
The recipients include hospitals, social service agencies, fire and sheriff departments, the California Highway Patrol, and other area service clubs all who have the opportunity to deliver these stuffed animals to those in need. And, a huge hug always comes with each animal.
"Each of our members carries at least one stuffed animal in their cars, so if they come across an accident, or some kind of tragedy, they can bring some comfort to the situation," member Merline Gillette said. "When I think of all the animals we have given out to the service men, at funerals, hospitals, law enforcement, at fire department disasters, or to anyone that requests them, it makes me feel like all my efforts are going to a truly wonderful cause."
One of Gillette's favorite memories is of the group's annual participation in the "Silent Sleigh," where all the children who attend are deaf.
"About two years ago, a girl about nine was standing in line to sit on Santa's lap. I found out this was the first time in her life that she had ever seen Santa Claus. Her face lit up and she was all smiles. It made such an impression on me that I no longer felt the cold weather. We sometimes forget just how blessed we are."
Mountain Bear Fan Club was founded in 1991 by Toni Lagunoff, when she gathered together seven of her friends to share how teddy bears comfort and can make people smile, even during those more trying times.
About 99% of these stuffed animals are donated when children outgrow them, or when spring comes around and it's time for a little of that thorough and deep-cleaning.
The group is actively recruiting volunteers and donations both monetary and of the stuffed variety. Volunteers meet for "Care and Feeding" the second and fourth Mondays of the month at the Oak Creek Clubhouse, 10 a.m. - 2 p.m. They also hold monthly meetings at different area restaurants the third Thursday of the month.
"Anyone who enjoys working with their hands, has time to spare, and would like to contribute to a good cause with the goal of providing stuffed animals to caregivers in the Madera and Fresno areas, is encouraged to join," President Beverly Gordon said.
"Our bears are given to sick, injured, lonely or traumatized children and the forgotten elderly," Gillette added. "Teddy bears do make a difference."
Details: (559) 683-1111.