IPSWICH - Robin Phelan is a woman who believes in the
power of gestures.
That is why she has spent thousands of hours over the
past five years in rooms filled with teddy bears. Bears
of all sizes. Thousands upon thousands of them.
Her occupation is nursing, which she practices at
Massachusetts General Hospital. But she found her
calling giving away toys to women and children. Since
its founding in her living room here, she has run the
Teddy Bear Foundation.
The foundation distributes its furry largesse to
women and children - especially those who are homeless,
or estranged from their families, or otherwise bereft.
It has distributed teddy bears through all sorts of
outlets, including shelters for battered women. Some
50,000 bears in all.
Over the years, through sheer demand, people's
generosity, and Phelan's hard work, Teddy Bear expanded
- meaning in this case that it finally outgrew her home.
After refinancing her house, she signed a five-year
lease at $610 per month on office space in a nondescript
industrial park. Less than a year later, her
organization is nearly bankrupt and she is personally
liable for the rent unless she can find a subletter.
Now, the future of the foundation is very much in
doubt. Like a lot of charitable organizations, the Teddy
Bear Foundation has seen many of its traditional funding
sources dry up since Sept. 11. There's only so much
philanthropy out there, it seems, and causes that are
perceived to be marginal have struggled to survive.
A grim bulletin board near her desk tells the story.
It lists foundations and charities on the North Shore,
the amount sought, and the response. There's not a
positive response listed.
It's hard to grasp, at first, what the great benefit
of this program could be. Then you talk to Katya Fels
and it all begins to make sense.
Fels is executive director of On The Rise, a
Cambridge group that helps women on the margins. Its
clientele includes battered women, homeless women,
people who've had their children taken away.
More than a year ago, during the Christmas holidays,
Fels said, a volunteer from the Teddy Bear Foundation, a
firefighter, showed up with several plastic bags stuffed
''I do not want to pretend that a teddy bear is going
to make it all safe and better,'' Fels said. ''A teddy
bear isn't going to magically transport a woman from a
shelter to her own home. But there's something about
being human that just finding housing alone doesn't give
''It's the little things like that that really go a
long way to helping people restore their dignity. And
you aren't going to stay in a shelter that long if you
have that dignity.''
The Teddy Bear Foundation hit the rocks just as it
was about to embark on its most ambitious project.
Called Bear Needs, it would have enabled donors to go
online, pick out gifts from one of several stores, and
have them delivered to women in shelters. Think of a
gift registry, but for women in shelters instead of
brides. That's on hold for now.
Ask Phelan about the possible end of the foundation,
and her eyes well up with tears.
''It's who I am now,'' Phelan said. ''It almost feels
like a death when I think deeply about it ending. It's
very emotional. If it comes time to close the door, I'll
deal with that. But for right now I need to keep the
As things stand, the little cash the foundation still
has on hand is restricted to programs that are barely
operating. Meeting its operating expenses is impossible.
Its office will be put up for sublet soon, effectively
spelling the end. It needs new donors - either one big
one or a lot of small ones.
''We need Oprah,'' Phelan said, mustering a weak
smile. ''If we could just talk to her about what we do,
I know she'd help us. But she's hard to get to.''
Oprah, are you listening?
Adrian Walker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.