As the New Year draws near, we tend to reflect upon meaningful experiences of the past year.
For me, such an experience was when Bernardo and I had the opportunity to do volunteer work together at the Center for Safety and Change - Rockland Family Shelter, located in New City, NY. Volunteering at this organization that helps women and children was something I had thought about doing for a while, so when the opportunity arose I was glad to lend a hand.
I was asked to come in once a week for 6 weeks, and care for a group of children, between 4 - 10 years of age. At the time the center was running a specific program that provided counseling for mothers. As the program took place in the evenings, after school and work, having their children occupied allowed for the mothers to receive help they desperately needed.
I immediately set to make the most out of those weekly visits. I wanted to fill the hours with joy, creativity, love and laughter, with high hopes that these warm feelings would carry the children through their time away from the center.
As the ages varied so widely, I had to seriously consider how I would keep the kids' attention. There was a small playroom, with a TV, so perhaps the simplest thing to do would have been to just turn it on and let the kids zone out for 2 hours a week. However, I had a much better idea!!!
As there would be a few weekly visits with mostly the same group of about eight children, I decided to customize a Touring Teddies gift experience especially for them. Each week, for four consecutive weeks, I would bring in a package from 'Bernardo in Italy'. I customized the letters for a group read, as I've done in the past for special orders of Classroom Edition Touring Teddies. Want to know how it was received? Read on!
The 1st Package Arrives...
On the very first week, the kids found me in the center's playroom, seated on a kiddie chair by the kiddie table, playing with tan and brown modeling clay.
"What are you doing?" was the question of the moment. I explained that I was molding a clay teddy bear, and asked if they would like to join. It was a great way to break the ice, and they all got to know one another while rolling and pulling the clay. The craft kept the kids quite busy. There very well may have been a future sculptor in the bunch! After an hour we took a break for snack, and followed by opening Bernardo's introductory luggage box.
So many questions!!! A teddy bear is coming to visit us? When? Where is he? How far is Italy???
We passed the blow-up globe around, or rather threw it around, and the kids crowded around to see who could spot the boot shaped country on the globe. "I found it!", "I also did!" Conversation and laughter flowed, and I took great pleasure in watching the older ones explain details to the younger kids. What stuck with me most that day, was how a few of the children repeatedly told me, "You're so nice". That touched my heart, for it made me think about how anxious they may have been about coming to the center that evening. I am just so glad that when it came time for the kids to leave, they were all smiles, and talking excitedly about coming back the following week. In that moment, right there, all seemed right with the world.
Package 2 - For All of You!
Another letter from Bernardo the bear!
This second package came along with the travel photos and souvenirs. The older kids took turns reading Bernardo's letter. When we passed the photos around, I asked them to search for landmarks and cultural items in the photos, and upon discovering them they shouted with joy.
For a fun activity I brought in wooden cat masks, inspired by the 'Carnevale' that takes place annually in Venice. The kids had seen a photo of Bernardo the bear next to a mask souvenir stand in Piazza San Marco and were excited to decorate their own. When they were done, I asked them to hold up their decorated masks and peer through them. The giggles that followed were quite contagious!
The second hour was spent decorating bracelets with colored beads inspired by colored Murano glass of Italy. One of the little girls in the group was under the weather that day, and did not want to participate in the activity. However, when her sister gave her a bracelet that she had made, her mood lifted completely. Ahhhh.... there's nothing like the gift of love :)
Package 3 - What's inside? Let's See!
When I walked inside the kids all greeted me with "Where's Bernardo? Did he come yet???". This was followed with, "Can we look inside your bag?". It was absolutely delightful. They were so excited, that it took a few minutes for them to settle down. We opened the third package, and once again the children took turns reading Bernardo's letter. They read of his adventures in Florence, Pisa and Rome.
Each child received a balancing eagle souvenir from Bernardo, and they eagerly tested them out by placing the beak on a fingertip. They were amazed at how the bird stayed balanced. We then discussed how the Tower of Pisa also leans but amazingly also does not fall!
For an activity this evening we painted rocks. I wonder if the famous Italian artist Leonardo Da Vinci ever tried doing the same ;)
Dark black and grey rocks were slowly transformed into objects d'art. They became colorful paperweights with painted ladybugs, flowers and hearts. A wonderful volunteer helped us out that day with washing little hands, keeping the paint on our smocks, and off our clothes. Thanks D.!
Afterwards, I asked the children to describe how the rocks had looked originally. Dark, black, and rough, were some of the answers. I then asked them to describe what they look like now. Beautiful, pretty, colorful were some of the adjectives used. We then discussed how we each have the power within to create beauty, even when presented with something dark and rough. My hope is for the children to remember this always.
Package 4 - Bernardo Arrives!!!
This was my final week with the kids, and I couldn't help but feel emotional. "Bernardo's here! Bernardo's here!" The kids were shouting as they jumped around me. I had a large box in hand, and they quickly gathered near as I opened it. Out came Bernardo from Italy. Each child took a turn to give him a big warm welcome hug. Bernardo was definitely the happiest teddy in town!
The kids had another very special furry visitor that day. A specially trained super-sweet labrador retriever. The kids absolutely adored her!!
Snack time was super-special too. I was told earlier on that pizza was being ordered as a treat, and requested to transform snack time into an Italian themed party for the kids (and in honor Bernardo's homecoming!). I had brought in ingredients for the kids to make Bernardo's Kid Cannoli and set them out on the large table. They had a great time taking turns measuring out ricotta cheese and powdered sugar, following the instructions on the recipe card that Bernardo had included in one of his previous packages.
While Italian tunes played in the background, we spooned the creamy mixture into individual bags, and the kids got a quick lesson on how to pipe the filling into kid cannoli shells (we used mini ice cream cones). When I set out little bowls with mini chocolate chips and rainbow sprinkles, the kids couldn't wait for the final step - that of dipping their mini cannoli right in. The favorite part by far, was eating the mini cannoli! Delizioso!!!
After we cleaned up, the kids were allowed to play outdoors. I handed a bubble wand to each child and we had loads of fun blowing and catching bubbles. Our four-legged friend joined in the fun, too! There's something magical about bubbles in springtime.
The evening ended with lots of bear hugs!
Many of the kids expressed how sad they were to leave. Wanting to keep their spirits up, the counselors spoke of holding onto the warm memories created in this very special place, and keeping them with us as we go into summer. The kids were then allowed to each choose a bear from the playroom to take home. Bernardo gave each child a hug good-bye, for he chose to stay put, so that he could greet other children coming to the center in the future.
After the kids all left, I gathered my things and got into my car. I felt tears come to eyes, and so I sat for a moment before turning on the engine. I reflected on the past few weeks, and thought of the precious children that have it way too hard, way too early in life. Then another thought came to me; Bernardo did good. He brought joy, learning and laughter where it was needed. It wasn't much, but it was something. A smile came to my face. Feeling so ever blessed, I drove home to give my own kids, now teens, a Mama Bear hug.
A BEARY SPECIAL THANK YOU to Cindy M. for providing me with the opportunity to be a volunteer at Center for Safety and Change.
To Cindy, Erica, Mary Ann, Jacqueline, Denise, and to Christina and Lynn, as well as everyone who works at the center: I personally believe your work is life changing. I know I speak for many when I say thank you for choosing to help make this world a better place.
Click here to learn more and/or volunteer The Center for Safety and Change
P.S. Thanks a beary bunch for the mug! It's perfect for my cappuccinos!