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Rare Bear Army in California on mission to support kids with rare diseases

Rare Bear
Posted at 1:09 PM, May 25, 2021

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -- A worldwide effort that began right here in San Diego to help kids with rare diseases is also reaching out with Positively San Diego hugs, in the form of unique teddy bears.

"We are part of the Rare Bear Army, which makes the bears for the children with the rare diseases," said Tonita Waters, who helped develop the Rare Bear Program.

Michiko Rice, one of the thousands of talented sewers who help create the bears by hand, added, "Some people made the outside skins, and right now, I'm embroidering all the noses and the eyes to finish it up.”

Waters and Rice are proud members of the Rare Bear Army, and you might think of Waters as one of the top generals, as her daughter, Dr. Christina Waters, is the founder of Rare Science, a nonprofit research organization dedicated to speeding up therapeutic solutions for patients with rare diseases.

"She called me," said Waters, referring to her daughter, “'We need a mascot.' So, I said, OK.' We got together, some friends of mine, we made up some bears, and we picked one."

Waters said the next step was approaching the Quilters Guild, which had the material and sewers on hand, like Rice, to stitch the plan together.

"We have so much fabric leftover from quilting," said Rice as she picked up one of the bears and showed off its mix of material. "Just like this bear, she was two different fabrics, one like this and one like this."

In five short years, some 7,000 sewers worldwide have joined the Rare Bear Army, which has turned into an international global nonprofit.

"We have bears coming into us every day from everywhere," said Waters.

And after the bears are sent out, they also have pictures of the new recipient and bear pair.

"I love to get the picture," said Rice, "and that's the bear I made, and this child is holding it. And it makes me very happy."

When they were told their efforts were enough to bring tears to the eyes, both women laughed.

"Don't start me," said Waters. "No, it does, and sometimes we'll get a video of the child unwrapping the bear, and it's just beautiful. It's really lovely."

The bears are made from a pattern with washable materials but are absolutely one-of-a-kind for their colors and prints. And they are never sold.

"They only go to children with rare diseases," emphasized Waters.

They are special bears for special kids.

"We try to make sure that they feel special that they are happy and cared for," said Waters.

The final, personal touch coming from the recipient, who gets to name the bear.

If you'd like to share your sewing skills with the Rare Bear Army or learn more about the effort to help those with rare diseases, visit

Jim Patton at KGTV first reported this story.