We asked Ruth Brasher, “The Teddy Bear Lady,” to tell us a bit more about her life and the teddy bears she makes each month for the Children’s Justice Center in Utah County. Although never married, she has a passion for serving the women and children in her community. She knows that “mother” is a verb and serves her community with organization, dedication, and love. It is an honor to know Ruth.
1. Tell us a little about yourself.
I was raised in Huntington, Utah, the eldest of six children–four sisters and one brother. Our life centered around our dairy farm, and since I was the eldest and the world was in the midst of World War II, I was responsible for the milk routes as soon as I was able to drive. We all worked hard, and I was frequently offended when I would be asked if my mother worked. It was a rewarding life, and we all learned to appreciate the value of hard work in our lives.
There was a significant emphasis on the importance of education in our lives. My siblings and I all attended college and all of the girls became educators. Our brother became involved in the mining industry. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Home Economics Education from Brigham Young University, followed by a master’s degree in Adult Education from the University of Maryland and later a doctorate in Sociology with emphasis on the family from Utah State University. I worked with the Utah State Extension Service as a County Extension Agent in Carbon and Utah counties.
After I had obtained my masters degree, I worked for the Oregon State University Extension Service as a 4-H and Youth Development Specialist. This was followed by becoming a professor and administrator at Brigham Young University. My life has centered on sharing what gifts and talents I have with others.
2. How did the Teddy Bear project first begin?
The Teddy Bear Project began as one of our service endeavors as we celebrated the Sesquicentennial of the Relief Society [a women’s organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints]. We determined that our project should last long enough to require some level of sacrifice. A one shot endeavor, no matter how important at the moment, was not sufficient, thus we made a commitment to make 300 teddy bears in the course of the year for the EMTs. Soon after we began, the EMTs recognized that they would not be transporting 300 children during the course of the year. Donna Crowley, a case manager at the Children’s Justice Center, knew of our endeavor and asked that we give the bears to them rather than the EMTs. Thus, in February of 1992, the Utah County Children’s Justice Center became the focus of our endeavor. The Children’s Justice Center is charged with the responsibility of investigating child abuse.
Therapists decided that children would choose a bear at the conclusion of their their experience at the center. They did not want the bear to influence the children’s responses in case they felt some obligation to say what they thought the interviewer expected them to say as a consequence of the gift. Therefore, the last thing the child has the opportunity to do at the conclusion of their visit is to pick out their teddy bear from those assembled on the fireplace mantle. If therapists use the bears at all it is in explaining to the victims that the bears have been made especially for them by someone who loves and cares about them.
Our February 2017 workshop began our 26th year, and we have provided over 21,000 teddy bears to the center. We have provided a minimum of 50 bears each month since we began, however the contribution has been more than that and at times has reached 100 bears in a month. It is impressive to me that after 25 full years of coordinating the program we still average between 15 and 20 individuals participating in every workshop. The love and support of many individuals to the program over the years testifies of the value of the program to the lives of children.
We do not have a sponsor. The fabrics have all been donated, and the fine quality stuffing, with one small exception, has been paid for by the program participants. Over the years their contributions have added up to thousands of dollars. This is just another example of the commitment to the cause.
3. What inspires you to keep going?
We periodically have an individual who has received a teddy bear report to us during one of our workshops. This enhances our commitment to continue to serve young people who stand in need of support and long for a knowledge that there is someone who loves and cares for them. When they receive their bears, the children are told that they have been made especially for them. Each of the bears is unique. Even if they are made from the same fabric, they end up decorated differently so the children can find one that is just their own. The unique bears seem to meet their unique needs.
The stories related to receiving the bears are heart wrenching. One young woman, who indicated that she could validate everything she was telling us either by court records or newspaper articles, described what she experienced with alcoholic and drug addicted parents. She said that she witnessed her father severely abuse her mother and her mother stab her father as well as experiencing abuse herself. She said, “I will always have PTSD as a consequence of what I have experienced and will always require some psychological assistance and that is okay.” [Our response to this revelation was, “What strength and courage she has developed!”] She said that she could not tell us how many foster homes she had been in. Noting that one can take very little with them as they are moved from one location to another, she told us that in all of her moves she never left her teddy bear behind.
Another young mother who had been raped at 14 years of age indicated that when she first received her bear she would just throw it. I was pleased to hear this because one of the first things they get assistance with at the center is getting past the anger so they are able to heal. She said, “I certainly never throw it anymore. I just look at it as it sets on my dresser and realize how far I have come in the past ten years and acknowledge how much my experience at the Children’s Justice Center has blessed my life and the lives of my husband and my son.”
When she learned that I had a part in the teddy bears being available at the center she leaned over, put her arms around me and said, “Keep making teddy bears.” I wept on the way home.
Another young woman talked about her gaining the courage to tell her mother that her father had sexually abused her for years. She said that her angel mother took her to the Children’s Justice Center where they convinced her that what she had experienced was not her fault, that her life was of great value and that she could have the strength and talent to make a significant difference in the lives of others. She said, “They gave me a teddy bear, and it was my only friend for years.” She has made a significant difference for others already as she has encouraged them to report the abuse they have experienced and seek the help they need in dealing with the challenges they face.
Another story relates to young boy. He had been severally abused. Following his experience with the case worker he selected his bear as he left the Center. Sometime later his family reported that the only time that he did not have the bear in his hands or arms was when he was in the bath tub, and then it had to be on the counter where he could see it. They indicated that the bear was so tattered that they were embarrassed to have him carrying it. They took him to Build-A-Bear and let him select everything he wanted for the bear, and he it took it home, put it aside in the corner, and hung on to his Children’s Justice Center bear. They wondered if they brought him back if it would be possible for him to select a new bear. The Center staff said it would be wonderful if he would trade with them–their concern was that if he did not trade them he still might cling to the old bear and not bond with the new one. He came to the center, selected a new bear and gave the old one to the staff. That bear is now used to share with new workers and volunteers the importance of the bear to the recipient. These stories are the tip of the iceberg in what we learn about the meanings of the bears to individuals and their parents.
We are fully aware that it is not the bear itself that is important, but rather what the bear symbolizes to the child of the care, concern, love and assistance they received at the Children’s Justice Center.
Another thing that keeps us going is the impact the opportunity to serve has meant in the lives of participants. We are aware of many positive consequences for those who have joined in making the bears. A few brief examples will suffice to give an idea of the rewards received by participants in the project. One woman who had brain cancer told of how the pain was so excruciating that she felt as if she could no longer survive it. Then she would get out of bed and sew a teddy bear and think about the child who might receive it, and she would not be aware of pain.
One of the participants reached the point that she was sewing three teddy bears a day except Sunday, and was taking clothing from her closet to make bears. She had been caring for her husband 24/7 for a number of years. She felt that when he died there was nothing left for her to do. However, she said, “With the teddy bear project, I knew that I could still make a difference.”
Another woman indicated that her arm had became so painful that nothing could be done to relieve it including pain medication. She pled with the Lord saying, “If my arm doesn’t get better I cannot make bears for the children.” Her arm improved, and she has attended the workshops consistently since that experience a few years ago. These are some simple examples of what keeps us going. Surely there are two wonderful sides to service.
4. If someone wants to join in and help, how could they do it?
Anyone who is interested in learning more about the program and who has a desire to participate with us is welcome to come to one of the workshops held on the 4th Tuesday of the month in Provo, Utah, except December. There you can see the breadth of opportunities it offers. If someone is interested in initiating a similar program, we are always happy to share ideas with them. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org and we can direct you to Ruth.