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Sharing bears, spreading joy

If teddy bears can offer companionship, comfort and joy then Maxine Rickard, of Arlington, has been making life’s experiences memorable and sometimes more bearable.

For nearly 30 years, Maxine, age 90, has assembled and sewn together over 300 teddy bears for her family and then continued to give more of them away to nursing home residents, friends and friends of friends.

Her Teddy Bear Project started innocently enough when she purchased her first pattern to make bears in the early 1980s which she still uses today.

Maxine’s first teddy bears were made for family and grandchildren when she lived in Cokato and were sewn with material that was being discarded by a local hide-a-bed factory. “If I went there in the evening I could pick up the leftover upholstery fabric in different colors, almost anything I needed, and I got pretty good at dumpster diving,” she joked.

After making bears for her grandkids, Maxine used her sewing skills to make another teddy bear for the little boy she was babysitting.

“He wanted so bad to have a Snuggle Bear for Christmas so I went to the store to see what they looked like,” she recalled. “Then I bought all the same stuff and went home to make him a bear.”

That Christmas Maxine made robes for her grandchildren and she also made one for the boy. “I took the robe and wrapped his bear that I made in it for his present. My bear looked so much like the original that he asked, ‘How did you know I wanted a Snuggle Bear?’ ”

By 1989 Maxine’s teddy bears began receiving some public attention when she lived in Parkers Prairie, and residents at St. Williams Nursing Home began receiving her comfort bears. They became so popular she enlisted the help of her church circle of women to make bears. As word spread of her bear creations it was not uncommon for the women to make 8-10 bears a month to be distributed to residents on their birthdays.

“At first some residents were a little reluctant to select a bear as I’d have three or four different kinds sitting on my arm for them to choose from,” she said. “But later I narrowed the selection down to two kinds to pick from and that worked better.” After that the residents were thrilled to be remembered on their birthdays.

Maxine Rickard, 90, of Arlington has made and given away more than 300 bears. Photo by Steve Palmer

Since then the Teddy Bear Project has taken on a mission of its own expanding to include other individuals that Maxine learns about who might be ill or suffering from some sort of trauma or distress and would enjoy becoming the recipient of one of her bears.

She has a thick scrapbook filled with numerous photos of teddy bear recipients and the emotional letters of thanks telling the story of what a gift Maxine’s teddy bears have meant to them. “A lady told me that she didn’t think I knew how sick she was when she received one of my bears which she’s kept now for 15 years,” Maxine said.

She once gave a bear to a man who in turn wrapped it up and then gave it to his grandson for his birthday present. “When I heard that I sensed that I had to make him another one. He didn’t want it at first but then decided to accept. I’m glad he did because two weeks later he died.”

There was another man in a nursing home recovering from injuries suffered in a house fire. “I made him a bear for a birthday gift, and he cried…we all cried,” she recalled.

Maxine said, “It’s interesting seeing the different reactions of people who can’t respond verbally, but they’re able to show some emotion with their eyes and that tells me they liked getting a bear.” It’s also been gratifying to have her handicapped grandson sometimes go with her to hand out bears as birthday gifts.

She believes in the biblical verse (from Luke 14:14) which reads “You’ll be blessed because they can not repay you.” “I wanted to give something that can’t be returned, and all the satisfaction or reward I need for doing this is to hear the giggles and thank yous along with all the hugs I’ve received,” she said.

One time a woman asked Maxine to make a bear out of the jacket worn by her deceased husband. “She still keeps it today, and it has a place on her bed,” Maxine said. “If someone asks me to make them a bear I’ll gladly do it, and I won’t take any pay. It’s just my project of caring and giving to others.”

She’s made a smaller bear out of a deceased great-grandfather’s handkerchief as a memory gift for a girl and bears from her husband’s shirt. “Orville was a WWII Army veteran who came back home from Okinawa in 1946,” Maxine said. “He bought a new plaid shirt that he wore when he went to town or visited neighbors. Orville wore that shirt for many years until he died and then I made seven bears out of it.”

She’s made about 60 bears since Orville’s death and has a waiting list of more to make for others. She’s still capable of making a bear in a full day’s work if needed. Maxine is also on her fourth sewing machine since the bear project began and pays for all of her supplies and polyester to fill the bears. But sometimes she still picks up polyester from a jacket factory in Staples or friends donate material for her bears.

Maxine said a close friend once asked her why she hadn’t made a bear for him. He said, ‘I’m old, and you haven’t made me a bear.” Maxine said, “I never dreamed that this man, who was a farmer and outdoorsman, would be interested, so I made him one for his birthday, and he was really happy. The bear went with him every year on his trip to Arizona for the winter.”

She’s given bears to the hearing center in town and now makes bears for the tenants at the apartment complex where she lives in Arlington. She has about eight left to finish before all 30 apartment occupants have received bears.

In appreciation, some residents at the apartments put together a teddy bear puzzle and had it framed. They surprised her with the gift, which now hangs on the wall above the couch in her living room.

The police and ambulance/fire departments also have been recipients of her comfort bears to give to accident victims or affected families. After her husband died she made about 10 bears for a grief support group. “It was a comfort for me if I did something for them which helped me too,” she commented.

She’s returned to Parkers Prairie for visits and made some bears for women who once were part of her original church circle bear sewing team.

Maxine has taught her 11-year-old granddaughter how to make and stuff bears and hopes that one day she’ll be able to carry on with the bear project. Many of Maxine’s bears have found homes in states all across the country plus two of them traveled to Finland with an exchange student.

Roseann Nagel said her mother’s sewing talents were evident all through the years she attended school. “My sister Charlene and I went to the stores to see all of the new clothing styles, and mom would buy the same kind of fabric to make our clothes,” she said. “All the girls in school would get mad because they saw us wearing the latest styles that everyone wanted but not knowing it was our mom who sewed them to match the same item found in the stores.”

Maxine said she’s had many good memories from giving teddy bears to others. The one bear she keeps for herself is from Orville’s plaid shirt which has a tag on it that reads: “Made special for Maxine by Maxine.”

Her bears don’t have names, but she agrees they sometimes tend to take on the personalities of the persons for whom she’s making them. When each teddy bear is finished Maxine attaches a note tag around the bear’s neck ribbon which reads:

“To hug-

“To tell your secrets-

“To sing a song-

“To pray with-

“This bear will never talk back-

“Or tell your secrets-

“ Enjoy and God Bless-

“ God be with you-

– Maxine Rickard.”

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