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Southern Baptists share ‘trauma bears’ in NYC

NEW YORK CITY (BP)–It was the day after the crash of United Airlines Flight 587, and as family members of the victims gathered at one end of the Jacob K. Javitz Convention center a team of Southern Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers delivered and quickly spread 200 plush toys around a small child-care center inside. While the parents gathered for an informational meeting on dealing with identifying remains and other grisly and painful details, the idea was to give the children a small reminder from individuals across the United States and Canada that they do not stand alone.

They call them trauma bears, but the items include purple dinosaurs, bunnies, and other stuffed toy creatures. Five years ago citizens of Oklahoma City were the beneficiaries after the Murrah Federal Building bombing, and those same citizens reciprocated by initiating what has become an international response in New York following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Southern Baptist Disaster Relief’s strong reputation with the city in recent days made the organization an ideal candidate to process and distribute more than 15,000 toys that had been gathering in a warehouse

“The mayor’s office has asked us to distribute the bears, and if for no other reason than to honor the mayor’s request we need to do it,” said John LaNoue, a 30-year Disaster Relief veteran from Texas who was called in with his wife, Kaywin, to coordinate the effort. “But we also have found it to be a tremendous personal blessing and opportunity for ministry.”

Southern Baptists have been one of the primary providers of hot meals for emergency and relief workers since the attacks, and more recently have developed a large-scale operation cleaning up apartments adjacent to the former World Trade Center complex.

The bears have become a symbol in many ways of the nation’s empathy for all those affected by the attack. Some are sent through the mail, while others left at local memorials for victims. Many carry notes of encouragement from the donors as reminders that they are loved — by the giver and by God.

Many of the bears do go to children who were in some way victimized by the attacks, while others goes to children in homeless shelters, hospitals, child-abuse and neglect situations, and other venues where the joy they impart is most needed. But they also go to adults, either for giving to needy children or to keep for themselves.

One police officer told Kaywin LaNoue, “You will never know what these bears and T-shirts have meant to the morale of this department, just to know that somebody cares.”

On another occasion she told a particularly wearied firefighter, “You look like you need a bear.”

“I do. I really do,” he replied.

At the city’s Emergency Operations Center, where representatives of Southern Baptist Disaster Relief and other agencies maintain offices, the bears frequently are found on top of computers or desks — spreading a message of happiness amid the overwhelming sorrow faced by volunteers and staffers daily.

The processing for the toys begins at the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief operations center at the Brooklyn Navy Shipyard. Volunteers first remove them from cardboard boxes, clean and sort them as necessary, and pack them for distribution in plastic bags.

New toys are given directly to children, while used toys are given to parents to take to their children or to an organization that distributes them to children in Third-World countries.

Kristine Berger, a liaison to the Emergency Operations Center from the non-profit group New York Cares, is responsible for helping find places for Southern Baptists to deliver them.

“It’s just a pure connection saying, ‘here’s a little gift that will bring a smile to your face,'” said Berger. “Even if the bears came to New York with one set of intentions, they are going to children who can really use them.”

John LaNoue said the toys, along with other Disaster Relief efforts, often give him opportunities for the impromptu counseling that often comes out of brief conversations with overstressed emergency workers. And while he can’t claim that all the toys were given by Christians because they wanted to share God’s love, he often has opportunities to share his personal motivation for helping to coordinate the distribution effort. He calls such opportunities “faith flags.”

“They remember that, and come back to you and ask you for the faith story,” he said.

And other times, like with the families of plane crash victims, it is simply an opportunity to have a part in a national outpouring of love and concern.

As they drove away from the convention center, they watched as the first of the survivors began to file in the main entrance. “That is wonderful,” Kaywin LaNoue said of the bears they had just set up, “because those children are going to have it hard enough.”

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  • James Dotson