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Yellow ribbons for Soldier Bears

This is a good program, and we see the good effect right away, and see the smiles on their faces.

Inspired by hundreds of yellow ribbons tied to the trees outside Canadian Forces Base Shilo last summer, ex-army brat Ann Morton, 68, decided to do something for the families of servicemen and women overseas.

Morton, an avid quilter from Killarney, went on to design and craft a beautiful quilt that incorporated both the red maple leaf and the yellow ribbon of support as its centre. It took her two months of stitching to complete, before being auctioned off last November at the Killarney Legion’s Poppy Day Tea. The quilt tickets raised $500, and the cash, sent to CFB Shilo, is now being used to purchase something special for children who have a parent serving in Afghanistan.

“The money will supply us with 33 bears and 33 journals,” said Colleen Talbot , deployment and special events co-ordinator for the Military Families Resource Centre at CFB Shilo, who helped come up with the idea of Soldier Bears. “We wanted to do something different, and we decided on the bears because they are a symbol of support for our troops. They are dressed in fatigues, like a mom or a dad, and the purpose of the bear is that we can implement them as a coping mechanism for the kids. The bears come in five shades of brown, and they are hand dressed by a retired military man and his wife who make the uniforms.”

Between 150 and 200 children live at the base with their families, while others live in residence away from CFB Shilo, said Talbot. Married to a military spouse herself, Talbot (a civilian) runs programs to help families cope with the stress of having a partner deployed overseas. So far 400 of the bears have been handed out to children, aged up to 15 years, since Talbot’s group introduced the Soldier Bear program in February of 2008. The kids get together on a Saturday, and each month has a festive theme. At the end of six months – the usual length for a tour of duty – the group of parents and kids has a Teddy Bear Picnic to wind up the program.

“The bears were very well received,” said Talbot. “The kids really like it, and the parents come back and say that the kids take the bears everywhere with them. This is a good program, and we see the good effect right away, and see the smiles on their faces. We are here for the families, and my job is to look after the family side of things. We have info about Afghanistan, we have workshops, cooking classes, trips to the zoo and to movies. We go bowling, and we also give parents a six-hour break each month.”

Each month the child writes in the journal about events in their lives, keeping a precious record for the parent who is away. Talbot also takes pictures of the kids with their bears, mounting the photographs alongside the diary stories.

“He has captured his memories and thoughts in the journal,” said Talbot. “When the parent returns, they are able to see what the child has done during his deployment. You are missing things when you go away.”

The next deployment from CFB Shilo is scheduled for February, 2009, with 20 personnel shipping out. In August, 2009, over 200 soldiers will start their tour of

duty in Afghanistan. Around 95 per cent of soldiers are male, while some five per cent are female – and two per cent of those are mothers, said Talbot. And more and more women are signing up for the forces, she said.

If you wish to sponsor a Soldier Bear, $15 supplies the Family Resource Centre at CFB Shilo with one outfitted bear and a journal. To contact Colleen Talbot for more information, phone: 1-204-765-3000, extension 4553. To send a cheque, mail to: MFR Centre, P. O. Box 5000, Station Main, Shilo, Manitoba, R0K 2A0. The Military Families Resource Centre (a non-army organization) is a registered charity, and issues receipts automatically.

– Kim Langen writes from Holmfield, Manitoba

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