'We want them to feel loved and cared for and welcomed': Deb Manske leads effort sewing teddy bears for Afghan refugees

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SOUTH MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Debra Manske is proof that a small act of kindness can grow into something big.

Last fall, she wanted to help Afghan children who were evacuated to Ft. McCoy here in Wisconsin. She started by sewing teddy bears, and she's been thrilled by how many people have joined her.

Something as simple as two pieces of fabric whirring through a sewing machine, getting flipped right side out and filled with some stuffing, can come to stand for so much more.

"We want them to feel loved and cared for and welcomed," said Debra Manske, as she drew a face on a stuffed bear.

Manske has been sewing teddy bears for months from her home in South Milwaukee. It was a small idea, planted when she started seeing images of the U.S. evacuation from Afghanistan.

"I just thought how traumatic that was for the children," Manske said. "Especially how the little children were so traumatized by that."

With Afghan families living at Ft. McCoy in Wisconsin, she pondered what would make a child feel welcome. Her own kids loved stuffed animals.

"For a young child, you know, they can put it in their pocket, or inside their shirt," she said.

She started making calls to see if that would be welcomed. That's when she found out how many kids there were at Ft. McCoy, and she knew she'd need some help.

"I thought, well, how many kids are there? And they said 4,500, and I went, 'oh,'" she recalled.

She reached out to friend and fellow sewist, Julie Oren, who jumped right in to help. Other friends were just as enthusiastic.

"That'll be great. I'll help ya! We'll get this done," Manske remembered one friend saying. "You know, I've got a friend in Chicago, she's got a little pattern for you. And that's where I got the little pattern."

From there, the bear project took off. They're made in all colors, fabrics-- and some aren't even bears. Manske started sewing llamas, too.

"I found out that llamas were native to Afghanistan," she explained. "I thought kids would recognize a llama."

What started as a few friends pitching in, quickly grew.

"It went out to all these sewists, all over the country, and now I'm getting emails from people," she said. "I don't know who they are or where they're from."

People pitching in from across the country, and right down the street.

"I've been sewing for almost 70 years," said Sister Richelle Ranallo. "When I was asked to do this, I thought any little act of kindness to help those children is worth the effort, and so I put my heart and soul into it."

Sister Richelle Ranallo and Sister Laverne Sommer live in St. Francis, but have never met Manske. Still, the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi made 215 bears.

"Anybody who can read can learn how to cook. I can read. I can learn how to follow a pattern for a stuffed animal. I said sure, I'd be happy to," Ranallo said.

Each sister helped in their own way.

"I said, well, I like to sew, especially that stitching, I can do that," Sommer said. "So, then she kept bringing me bags, garbage bags, of bears and llamas."

Jill Haberman picked it up from there.

"So, our job in all of the bear project was to deliver the bears," Haberman said.

Haberman is the justice and peace animator for the Sisters of St. Francis.

"We have the best job in the world. Our job is to help the sisters, both on campus and throughout the community, to keep current on social justice issues," she explained of the job she and her husband do.

She met the children at Ft. McCoy while volunteering - making sure the bears would get delivered.

"People are people and we all need the same things, and that is very true with kids, as well. Kids are kids, people are people," Haberman said.

As Manske found, people want to help.

"I really am so grateful that so many people have such big hearts," Manske said.

The bears are still coming in -- 1,100 and counting, adding up to more than Manske could have dreamed.

"It was the one little thing that I could do, and then to be able to have other people want to do that with me, just amazing," she said.

Manske said she has been told families at Ft. McCoy are being placed in permanent homes, and the bears are no longer needed there.

She's looking for other places to donate them, as the bears keep coming in from across the country. If you'd like to help, you can reach Manske at debra.monthei@gmail.com.

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