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mabear
08-08-2005, 03:24 PM
Monday, August 8, 2005
Inmates sew bears for kids
Macomb County prison group donates stuffed teddies to neglected, abused Metro children.
By Christina Stolarz / The Detroit News

NEW HAVEN -- When George Betts-Bey was a boy, he looked to his teddy bear to help him through tough times.

"When I had nothing else, I'd grab my teddy bear and things would be fine," said Betts-Bey, 49. "To hug a teddy bear makes you feel better."

Even now, after serving 30 years in prison for armed robbery and attempted murder, Betts-Bey still smiles when he sees a teddy bear. It serves as a reminder of how life used to be and how quickly it can change.

But instead of hugging them now, Betts-Bey and seven other inmates at the Macomb Correctional Facility in New Haven took it upon themselves to make teddy bears for children throughout Metro Detroit who are abused, neglected or in crisis situations.

The prisoners have made between 450 and 500 stuffed animals in the past year and donated them to various organizations, including the Macomb County Department of Human Services, the Richmond/Lenox Emergency Medical Services and the Wayne County Sheriff's Office.

The teddy bear program is run through the Macomb chapter of the National Lifers of America Inc., which allows any prisoner who wants to better himself to give back to the community, said Betts-Bey, chapter president. Many of the members are serving life sentences.

The organization was established in 1993.

"We love doing this," Betts-Bey said. "I'm a better person than I was yesterday and I hope to be a better person tomorrow."

Michelle Williams-Ward was surprised when the inmates approached her with the idea of getting involved in community projects.

"Although they are criminals, they've done wrong in their life, they're still willing to give back to the community," said Williams-Ward, an assistant resident unit supervisor at the facility. "It's a good cause."

The inmates gather in the hobby room twice a week to draw and cut patterns on furry material, stitch together the pieces, stuff the animals and add eyes, noses and pink and red ribbons. On average, they make 25 stuffed animals a week with donated and purchased materials, said Tilmon Barnett, 42, project coordinator.

"We feel good about what we're doing," said Barnett, who has served nearly 22 years of a life sentence for murder. "There's not a lot else we can do. Since I came to prison, I've tried to keep things positive."

The eight inmates work quietly, using the skills they've learned at the facility that houses roughly 1,200 men.

Melvin Dalton sews pieces of material together while Mubarez Ahmed traces a pattern onto fabric. Nearby, Barnett rifles through several patterns separated in used envelopes. Plastic eyes are stored in old glass peanut butter jars.

It's the only activity that Walter Hatfield, 28, looks forward to each week. He's been at the facility for 18 months.

"I love doing this," said Hatfield, wearing a blue prison uniform and brushing a bear. "It gives me a sense of pride. I hope the child that receives this bear ... it gives them a lot of joy and happy times."

The teddy bears added a comforting touch to the Macomb County Department of Human Services' foster care duffel bag program, said Karen Urquhart, community resource coordinator.

The bags are given to children who are entering foster care and come filled with personal care items, basic clothing, school supplies and a small toy or stuffed animal. The prisoners donated about 100 teddy bears, Urquhart said.

"It probably gives them a sense of purpose because they're helping kids," she said. "Every kid likes to get a stuffed animal (and) it's a traumatic time for them so it's definitely a comfort item.

"It's the perfect thing to give."

You can reach Christina Stolarz at (586) 468-0343 or cstolarz@detnews.com.

How to help:
Eight inmates at the Macomb Correctional Facility in New Haven make teddy bears each week for children throughout Metro Detroit who are abused, neglected or in a crisis situation. Here's how to donate materials or stuffed animals:
Where: Macomb Correctional Facility, 34625 26 Mile, New Haven
Who: Michelle Williams-Ward, assistant resident unit supervisor
Contact: (586) 749-4900, Ext. 452
Source: Macomb Correctional Facility