Jewell Cardwell

Students at Akron’s St. Paul School are learning firsthand that they can make a difference — even at their young ages.

This week, in honor of Catholic Schools Week, they got all hands involved in a noble enterprise they pray will have a long shelf life.

“This year’s theme was ‘Communities of Faith, Knowledge and Service,’?” said kindergarten teacher Ruth Deitzel, who added that it wasn’t easy settling on one project that all of the students — kindergarten through eighth grade — could each feel similar success in completing.

Then the teddy bear project was born, which turned out to be a great fit on so many different levels for the school, which dates back to 1926, and its Firestone Park community.

“Fire Station No. 13, the school’s next-door neighbor, will be using the teddy bears to comfort children that need to be transported in the ambulance,” Deitzel said.

Yards and yards of colorfully patterned flannel fabric were purchased at a huge discount from Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft Stores, with much of the money coming from the Student Council fund.

The effort yielded 200 6-inch teddy bears and involved all of the school’s 170 students in one way or another.

Seventh-graders traced the pattern onto the fabric, and sixth- and eighth-graders were charged with the tedious task of cutting them out.

Deitzel and fourth-grade teacher Janet Hazlett spent several after-school hours sewing the bears, leaving just enough room for students in kindergarten through fifth grade to stuff them with batting.

The teddy bears are to be blessed at an assembly today by the retiring the Rev. Ralph Thomas, and then will be presented to the fire department.

Learning from experience

Kindergartner Isaiah Ganous has inside knowledge of how important these teddy bears will be, especially for little sick children.

Isaiah knows because once when he became very sick, he had to be transported by ambulance. “I wasn’t so scared because my grandma was with me,” the animated and now unquestionably healthy 5-year-old said. “But if she hadn’t been there, I know I could have used one of those little bears to calm me down … I don’t know why, but bears just make people feel happy.”

That’s not lost on fourth-grader Holden Mullenax.

As fate would have it, when the school embarked a few years ago on a similar project and donated teddy bears to Akron Children’s Hospital, Holden was admitted to the hospital the day after the bears were dropped off and he received the very first of these huggable friends.

Kindergartner Payton Leangrath, as she worked on smoothing out the stuffing in her wildly patterned teddy bear, was emphatic about the purpose: “They help calm down children when they’re scared!”

Fellow kindergartner Isabella Strader was quite the expert on getting the stuffing evenly distributed in the teddy bears, after instruction from fourth-graders Elijah Holloman and Bryce Leslie. “You try to get it in the arms, feet and head first,” the newly empowered Isabella announced. “Then you do the chest and stomach.”

Fourth-grader Wyatt Tonkovich said, “I think it’s good that we’re doing this. When people are severely hurt these teddy bears are meant to calm them down.”

Made with love

Kindergartner Isabelle Bahr was so invested in the project that she kissed her bear before placing it in a big plastic collection bin. “I was kinda like, I was giving it some love!” she whispered.

Teachers Deitzel and Hazlett plan to give the bears lots of love tonight as they embark on a nontraditional homework assignment: taking out some of the stuffing in the 200 bears that have too much, and putting more in those that need it. And they will finish sewing up the bears’ small side pockets that allowed small hands to stuff them.

Deitzel said she made her first teddy bear when her daughter Danielle Deitzel, who teaches junior high English at the school, was 5 years old. “She still has that bear!” her mother delighted in saying.

Principal Robert A. Brodbeck and school secretary Mary Ann DeKemper have quite a history at St. Paul’s. Brodbeck, 63, began as a 5-year-old student there. DeKemper, 10 years his senior, also started her education there as a 5-year-old.

Both have seen generations of their families and others there, and are as proud of the teddy bear project as they are of the random-acts-of-kindness board in the hallway they call “Living in the Light of Christ.”

“Whenever we catch a student doing an act of kindness we announce it on the loudspeaker and then put their name on the board,” Brodbeck said.

A different spin on what is meant by taking names, getting caught doing something that bears repeating, and growing future good citizens of the world.

Jewell Cardwell can be reached at 330-996-3567 or jcardwell@thebeaconjournal.com.