One day a week, the storm shelter at Maple Ridge, a retirement community near 168th Street and West Maple Road, becomes the Bear Den.
Every Tuesday, from eight to 16 people gather to create felt Hug-A-Bears for children at Bergan Mercy Medical Center, Children's Hospital & Medical Center, Salvation Army and Project Harmony in Omaha; Madonna House in Lincoln; or for state troopers, police and fire departments and the Douglas County Sheriff's Office to give to young victims.
The bearmakers are mostly members of the Heartland Council of the New Outlook Pioneers, a service group made up of former employees and retirees from Western Electric/AT&T/Lucent/Avaya/Connectivity Solutions.
The council was on its last legs in 2000 when Marcy Dawkins was asked to revive it. She agreed on the condition that it be run “her way,” said her husband, Steve. Twelve years later the group is still going strong, even though Marcy Dawkins died earlier this year.
“She really ran this outfit,” said Ray Fugger, who joined along with wife Virginia.
Steve Dawkins has stepped in as leader to honor his wife's memory, and the other members say they appreciate it.
On a recent Tuesday, the workroom buzzed with talk and activity as 16 volunteers created the bears, operating like a well-oiled machine. It all starts with heavyweight fleece blankets cut into 12-inch-wide strips. Bear shapes are traced onto the material, the forms are cut out, and one person punches holes for the eyes and nose, which are added. Fronts are matched to backs, which are sewn together except for the bottom. The “bearskin” is turned inside out and filled with fiber stuffing. A little red tongue is added, the bottoms are hand-stitched closed, and the bears get a bow around the neck.
Some of the volunteers take home bear parts if they can't stay for the workshop. As of that early November Tuesday, 27,991 bears had been handed out. Many more are in the works; the bearmakers usually complete 40 or so bears a week.
All the materials have been donated, Dawkins said. Excess material is sent to the Omaha Children's Museum for art projects. “Nothing goes to waste,” he said.
Maple Ridge also lets the group use the room for free and store equipment and materials in storage cupboards and a small storage room. There is a schedule for bringing refreshments, and after working about three hours, everyone packs up and goes out to lunch. Once a month they also get together for dinner.
Dawkins proudly points out the honors the Pioneers have received: a 2011 Points of Light award, a First Lady's Outstanding Community Service Award for 2012, a Citizens of the Year honor.
Although almost all the bearmakers can do every job in the fabrication process, most have settled into the station they like or do best.
Ann Drebot said she is known as “the best stuffer.” Otto Klabunde is the usual hole-puncher. Darla Plymale worked all three hours at the sewing machine.
Dawkins walked around as a sort of quality control guy, pointing out flaws as well as making sure everyone had what he or she needed. “We're all perfectionists,” he said.
Joan Ackley was the final step for the finished bears. “I'm kind of a specialist in bows,” she said with a laugh. She also put each completed bear in a plastic bag so it doesn't collect dirt or get damaged while waiting for its child.
“It makes you feel good that you can do something for others,” Plymale said.
Joe Bonaiuto agreed. “Knowing what they're being used for is a good feeling,” he said.
“It's also about good fellowship,” said Lois Brittell, who was a recent addition to the group along with her husband, Dewey.
Don't exclude good friends, good conversation, good jokes — they're part of the package for all of them. But it's not a closed circle: The group is always on the lookout for new volunteers, Dawkins said. “I ask everyone if they can sew.”
New people will be welcome, said Dick Maxwell, adding: “We have a lot of fun.”
Contact the writer: