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The Teddy Bear Foundation in The News

Bad news for bears
By Adrian Walker, Globe Columnist, 5/30/2002

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 with bears.

''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 you.

''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 faith.''

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 walker@globe.com.

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 5/30/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.



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