A Hug Makes You Feel Better



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?'" Penisten said.

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 over.

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 them."

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 last week.

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."