14,000 teddy bears lovingly knitted by a team of Ryman residents and community groups are in the arms of the Ukrainian children they were made for.
The arrival of the precious cargo at orphanages, hospitals and schools in Ukraine and Poland was the culmination of Ryman’s year-long Yuri Bear Project to send a gesture of love and support to children displaced as a result of war.
The initiative was started by Ryman Healthcare General Manager Sales-Victoria Debra Richardson. In 1993 Debra fostered 11-year-old Yuri from Ukraine following the Chernobyl disaster.
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“After Yuri left, I lost contact with him for many years and we only reconnected in 2017 after a long search on Facebook,” she said.
Yuri (far left) and Debra with family in 1993.
“When war broke out in Ukraine early last year the project emerged from my discussions with Yuri about how we could provide support from New Zealand and Australia," she said.
“What began as a way for me to feel I could do something to show I was thinking of Yuri, grew into a movement which empowered thousands to take action in response to the horrors of war.”
As well as avid knitters across Ryman’s 45 villages, aid organisations and community groups including Red Cross Australia, also championed the project.
Residents at Possum Bourne knitted more than 500 bears.
In June Debra traveled to Poland and Ukraine to help aid organisation Kiwi K.A.R.E distribute the heartfelt creations, and for a long-awaited reunion with Yuri.
“Many months of preparation went into ensuring both the Yuri bears and myself arrived safely,” Debra said.
“Kiwi K.A.R.E founder Tenby Powell has led on-the-ground aid and evacuation services for people in Ukraine since war broke out and his knowledge and experience helped to make the trip possible.”
An Australian news crew traveled from London to Poland, and across the border in Chelm to Ukraine, with Debra to capture the impact of the project on Yuri bear recipients.
“In Chelm we met eight-year-old Ivanya at an orphanage,” she said.
“Ivanya and his five siblings were abandoned by their family, and while Ivanya is living in Poland, his siblings are believed to be in Germany.
Debra and Ivanya in Chelm, Poland.
“When Ivanya was choosing a bear, he needed to choose six because he wanted to share them with his siblings.
“It was so powerful to see this little child who has lost literally everything and yet his one concern was ‘how can I share with others’.”
Debra and the news crew overcame many obstacles, including suspicious border officials, long waits and being unable to cross the Polish/Ukrainian border in a hire car, to eventually reunite with Yuri.
“Knowing that he was waiting for me on the other side was one of the most incredible moments of my life,” she said.
Debra and Yuri in Ukraine.
“To be able to share the support of Ryman residents and knitters throughout New Zealand and Australia with Yuri and his family was an experience I will cherish forever.”
Later, Debra spent three nights in Kyiv with Yuri and his family.
Debra with Yuri and his family.
Now back in Melbourne, Debra continues to work with people on the ground in Ukraine, including Tenby and Yuri, to support aid efforts and the ongoing distribution of Yuri bears.
Frequently visiting areas on the front line of conflict, Tenby ensured among the thousands of children to receive a Yuri bear were some from Kherson, a city decimated by flooding when a nearby dam was bombed.
Recently Yuri helped Tenby distribute seven ambulances full of medical supplies and Yuri bears to people on the front line.
Tenby said the ambulances would be stocked with Yuri bears prior to visits to the worst-affected areas.
Debra said while knitting needles were no longer crafting Yuri bears, the legacy of the project was still being felt.
In August she shared the remarkable story of the project with an emotional crowd marking Ukrainian Independence Day in Melbourne.
Similar presentations at Ryman villages are planned.
“The project united knitters from throughout New Zealand, Australia and from as far afield as Denmark,” she said.
“But it also connected brave people like Yuri and Tenby who are helping the most vulnerable.
“And perhaps most importantly, 14,000 children will have a Yuri bear; a friend when they need one the most.”