LIBBY - Sometimes acts of kindness that spark a circle of giving in a community, can come from unexpected places.
“It brings us great joy to know our skills and efforts are making a difference. There is a preconceived image of what an inmate is and acts like and we shattered this image. We genuinely want to help as we pay our debt to society. It provides us a sense of self-worth and human dignity," Pastor Karen Disney read from a letter provided by the inmates at Washington State Penitentiary.
Stuffed bears have brought comfort and a sense of home to kids across Libby and Troy who have found themselves in a crisis. These bears have a unique story, just like the children who receive them. They are made by inmates at the Washington State Penitentiary.
A hat donation to the United Methodist Church, in Libby, from a Sustainable Practices Lab that allows prisoners to work while serving time, has turned into a giant circle of giving when some stuffed bears arrived in a package with the hats.
“I felt led to do something with these bears that supported our community and also supported these guys at Washington State Penitentiary because I knew they wanted to make a difference with something. Making a difference for kids, the men in prison, for our communities, everybody,” said Bears 'n Stuff President and founder Cyrus Lee.
Lee says they have been working with the Libby and Troy communities for almost a year. The non-profit provides stuffed bears and quilts to children who are removed from their homes by Child Protective Services (CPS).
“It gives the kids something to focus on during a bad situation. It's a comfort to them. And it's just something that a lot of people would take for granted, a bear really, well, in these kid's life, it's really a bear. It means sometimes a lot, just more than you can know,” said CPS administrator Susan Ague.
The prisoners make hats, quilts, paintings and other artistic things to be sold or auctioned off. The material used to make these items comes from donations from the community.
“Well, there's a lot of yarn hidden in closets all over America, at least especially in Libby, Montana. And the next thing I knew we had yarn coming in by the box full.”
But the giving doesn’t stop with the bears and quilts. The money raised from people purchasing these works goes to local non-profits across the Tobacco Valley including the Libby Food Pantry.
“They're providing a product for the community when they come in and buy their little bears and things that they spread all over the place. And then they're kind enough to turn around and give it to a group like us," said Libby Food Pantry board member Keith Ivers.
These inmates have broken the stigma that comes along with being incarcerated.
“It's an eye-opening experience, working with these guys, they are like everybody else. They're smart. They want to make a difference. They want to do something. And they are ecstatic to know that a bear like this goes out and help somebody in the community and then a kid or a senior citizen is made happy or happier by something that they're doing,” said Lee.