She is one of about 30 men and women who make the bears to be passed along to patients with life-
She is one of about 30 men and women who make the bears to be passed along to patients with life-threatening illnesses through Hospice of the Valley. They also pass them along to others in the community who are sick or lonely.
Schneider lost a son to AIDS in 1993 when he was 33. A Hospice group near her former home in Florida took care of him -- and the family.
"They were so good to Ricky, and that's why I'm stuffing bears," she said. "And they helped me through the hard times. ... We couldn't even talk without crying."
Idea traveled north
Sonia Bowes of Boardman brought the Burden Bear idea to Ohio from Florida, where she worked with friend Norma Hesse to make bears for Hospice patients there. Hesse had searched for a simple bear to accompany a Burden Bear verse. When she couldn't find it, she decided to make one.
When Bowes brought the idea to Trinity Fellowship, it caught on. She and the others -- who gather from four area churches -- made 200 of the bears this summer.
"Everybody kept telling everybody. ... It just keeps going," she said.
The ministry prays over each bear, Bowes said, and makes sure there are enough for each new Hospice patient and for any others who make a request.
Arlene Berry of Boardman joined forces with Bowes this summer. She knew an 11-year-old girl who was quite ill. When she heard about the free bears, she raised her hand and took one to young Nikki.
"She was quite pleased with it," said Berry. "It's just a little piece of cloth with some stuffing in it. But I've seen some tough guys tear up because they feel so good that somebody thought enough of them to do this."
Berry herself was diagnosed in 1997 with inoperable cancer in her left breast. It has spread to the chest wall. But she smiles and hugs a friend after she reads a Burden Bear verse to him and presents a bear for his wife in nursing center.
Many of the Burden Bear Ministry members can't sew, but they cut bear and blanket shapes from scraps of fabric donated or purchased by ministry members at garage sales and bargain shops.
Along with Bowes, Donna Marrie and Dorothy Burdge, both of Boardman, take the fabric shapes home to do the machine sewing. They bring them back, inside out, for turning and stuffing with materials, some donated by a friend who saves the fluff from medical packaging.
Trinity Fellowship Associate Pastor Angelo LaCivita said the group started with seniors who came for a lunch program at the church. When the program was placed on a summer hiatus, the volunteers still came to make the bears, bringing their own meals.
"They're sharing the love of Jesus Christ with the community," said LaCivita's wife, Nancy. "When people get them [the bears], they're so touched, because somebody cares about them."
Mary Krieger, 89, of Youngstown, may be the oldest Burden Bear Minister in the group. She said she started helping because it's "better than playing bingo."
"I like to sew and I like arts and crafts and to be with people. This gives me an out," she said. "... When I think back, the thing my mother taught me real well was to sew. I used to make her nightgowns."
Now Krieger sits across from her own daughter as they make bears together.
Thelma Yarwick gets teary-eyed when she talks abut the bear given to her 72-year-old sister-in-law in her final days.
"She laid it beside her head in the hospital bed," Yarwick said. The woman had rested her head on the bear and it was still there when she took her final breath.
Yarwick, of Boardman, said she joined the craft group because she likes to "do for others."
"I think it's so rewarding," she said, "because you're doing something for someone else. I like to reach out for others."