FORT WAYNE, INDIANA
Trevor Penisten, 6, doesn't remember all the details about the teddy
bear he received from Erin's House for Grieving Children after his
father died, but he does remember how comforting a teddy bear hug
can be. That's why he told his grandmother, Mona Penisten, they
should send teddy bears to children affected by Hurricane Katrina.
Trevor was a 4-year-old preschool student at Bethel United Methodist
Church in Fort Wayne, when his father, Army Spc. Brian Penisten, was
killed in Iraq in November 2003. After his father's death, a
counselor from Erin's House visited Trevor and his classmates. She
asked them to hug a teddy bear she had brought for Trevor, to fill
the furry critter with lots of love.
"I think he felt very relieved and very comforted by it," said Chris
Kindlesparger, Bethel's preschool director.
In the coming months, Trevor loaned his bear to family members when
they seemed sad.
"He just shared that bear with all of us," Mona Penisten said.
After Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, Penisten explained
to her grandson the losses suffered by the storm's victims. She
showed Trevor the trailers at local stores filled with donated items
for the people of Louisiana and Mississippi.
"I think it must have been working on him," Penisten said.
Trevor told his grandmother the children affected by the storm
needed teddy bears. But not just plain teddy bears.
"Then he said, `Grandma, can we send them teddy bears with hugs?'"
About three weeks ago, Penisten mentioned Trevor's suggestion to her
Bible study group at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church. Ann
Arnold, a member of the group, said she could donate about 200 bears
through her ties with the Christ Child Society, a nonprofit
organization that helps needy children. Another member of the study
group, Dolly Coonan, whose daughter is a teacher at St. Ann's School
in Medina, La., suggested the bears be donated to students from that
school because it was destroyed in the hurricane.
After that, things fell quickly into place. Penisten contacted St.
Philip Neri School in Medina, where St. Ann's students were
transferred. An anonymous donor provided the boxes in which to pack
the bears, and UPS agreed to pay the postage. At that point, only
one important detail was left: bear hugs.
On Monday, preschoolers from Bethel left their classes and assembled
outside the sanctuary around a cross filled with poinsettias. The
students were each given teddy bears they hugged, kissed and prayed
Some of the morning students decided their bears needed names, and
Butterscotch, Cinnamon and Snickers were born.
Trevor, who now counts his teddy bear from Erin's House as one of
the items he got from his dad, visited Bethel on Monday to watch the
afternoon students hug the teddy bears. When Kindlesparger told the
little ones to "hug those bears and give them a lot of love," Trevor
became quiet and hid his face.
Noting Trevor's reaction, Mona Penisten crossed the room, hugged her
grandson and talked to him while Kindlesparger led the students in
prayer: "We hope the kids who get them can feel the love we put into
After a final round of hugs and kisses, the students said goodbye to
the bears. Each bear now had a slip of paper tucked in its coat
pocket that reads, "This bear was hugged by," followed by the name
of the student who had loved it.
Another round of bear hugs is planned at Bethel on Thursday, and
some students at Whispering Meadows Elementary School hugged bears
By Saturday, Mona Penisten plans to send pack the love-infused bears
to Louisiana. Each bear will be packed with donated school supplies
collected at Bethel.
Though he can be distracted by toy trucks and dinosaurs, Trevor
knows from hard experience that teddy bears are best in tough times.
"You can hug them," he said. "It makes you feel better."