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Residents in awe of Debra’s Yuri bear story

Written by Maryvonne Gray
on September 21, 2023

Residents at two Auckland villages were thrilled to hear the latest instalment of Project Yuri Bear directly from the source when Ryman Healthcare’s Debra Richardson came to tell her story.

As General Manager Sales for Ryman’s Victorian branch, Debra was keen to personally thank some of the Kiwi knitters who had collectively contributed thousands of Yuri bears to help displaced children in Ukraine.

“It’s been humbling to meet so many of the residents who contributed,” she said, during her recent trip to New Zealand.


“Everything had been stitched, knitted and sewn with love. It meant that I travelled to Ukraine with thousands of people behind me and I felt like I had the weight of them on my shoulders.”

Debra personally delivered the first of 14,000 colourful knitted Yuri bears to children in Ukraine in June with help from former Tauranga mayor and businessman Tenby Powell, who founded the charity Kiwi KARE Ukraine (Kiwi Aid & Refugee Evacuation).

Debra played a short video for residents that explained how the whole project came about which also featured moving footage from her subsequent trip, including a very emotional reunion with Yuri himself.IMG_8416 (1) (Large)

Debra prepares to tell her story to residents at Possum Bourne (above) and with star knitter Cora Brooking and one of her Yuri bears (top). Residents have more questions over morning tea (below).

IMG_8430 (1) (Large)Yuri, a lieutenant colonel in the Ukrainian police, is now helping Tenby’s charity with their distribution of the bears along with seven ambulances donated by New Zealand and medical supplies, with some bears being reserved to gift to children at an upcoming Saints Day before Christmas.

Residents at Ryman’s Possum Bourne village knitted an incredible 584 bears in total, and held a special teddy bear’s picnic to celebrate before boxing them up for dispatch.

There were gasps of amazement when they heard that Debra had made 1000 bears herself!

Debra explained the connection with Yuri, telling the residents how her former role as a police officer had prompted the opportunity to foster Yuri back in the early 90s. With Yuri’s father also working in the emergency services, the idea was to give some of the first responders in Ukraine some respite after the traumatic Chernobyl disaster a few years before.

Young Yuri was taken in by Debra and her husband Andrew initially for two weeks, which turned into three months, causing a very strong bond to be forged.

She reconnected with Yuri on Facebook after many years of losing touch and when Russia invaded Ukraine the two of them came up with the idea of Project Yuri Bear, a small gesture to help all the many children separated from their families because of the Russian invasion.

Debra thanked everybody for their efforts, including Cora Brooking who made 31 all up.

“When they said how many they needed I couldn’t believe it,” said Cora. “And I was going to make more but they said no more!”

IMG_8441 (1) (Large)

Bert Sutcliffe residents are awestruck by Debra's story (above) and with Jill Muir (below), who rallied the residents to get knitting Yuri bears.

IMG_8444 (1) (Large)During her trip to Ukraine, Debra met an eight-year-old boy called Ivanya who’d been separated from his parents and five siblings.

“When he asked if he could have six I thought why would he want six? But he was choosing some for his brothers and sisters.”

She added: “I always hoped that a little tiny bear might make a difference but until you see it and witness the joy that the kids get out of that… I don’t think any of us could really understand what the power was going to be.”

Later that day Debra met residents at Bert Sutcliffe village in Birkenhead and met a similar response from awestruck residents, many of whom featured in the Ryman video about the project.

Jill Muir, who organised the village knitting group to produce 118 bears, said it was great to finally find out what had happened to all the bears.

“What an amazing story,” she said. “It needs to be made into a documentary and just shows what can be achieved when like-minded people get together.

“Now we can think about our bears being loved by all those children.”

Fellow knitter, Sue Harvey, felt the same: “It was wonderful to hear what happened to the bears and Debra’s story was heart-warming and a delight to listen to.

“The villagers have been very impressed by the story and also our little contribution to the project,” she said.

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Bert Sutcliffe residents sign a New Zealand flag for Debra to send to Ukraine.


* For the latest update on Project Yuri Bear see the video at the end of this story: Mission Complete: Yuri Bears reach recipients

About Ryman Healthcare:

Ryman was founded in 1984 and has become one of New Zealand’s largest listed companies. The company owns and operates 45 retirement villages in New Zealand and Australia which are home to more than 13,900 residents and the company employs 6,800 team members.

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