How Bears Of Hope Is Changing The Lives Of 1000s Of Aussies
When Amanda Bowles lost her second son Jesse at 21 weeks, her world crumbled. After an emotional labour, she and her husband had to say hello and goodbye, to create a lifetime’s worth of memories in what now seems like the blink of an eye.
And then they had to go home without their precious and much-loved baby in their arms.
“It was a really tough time,” Amanda says now, 11 years on. “We had a three-year-old who knew that mum had a baby in her tummy. [He] doesn’t understand, keeps asking where the baby is. The grief you go through… It’s your own.
“There wasn’t really any way to connect with people that just understood how difficult it is.”
Amanda wasn’t alone, though. In Australia, as many as one in four pregnancies end in miscarriage and more than 2,000 babies are stillborn each year. Miscarriages and stillbirths are not exclusive to any one socio-economic background, to any race, to any age. They don’t discriminate in any way.
Amanda began to understand that when she was gifted a small teddy bear as she left the hospital that day in January 2006. The Bear was placed in her arms to give her something to hold onto and had the contact details of a woman called Toni Watson on the label.
“She had started to donate bears to hospitals off her own bat,” Amanda explains. “And she donated one to the hospital my Jesse was born at.
“Toni lost seven babies before bringing a healthy one home.”
As the women’s relationship developed, so did an idea: A charity that would help to support families who have lost their baby through pregnancy or birth, to help mums and dads, grandparents, aunts and uncles, work through their grief and not feel as alone as Amanda and Toni did.
And it all starts with a bear.
“We registered Bears of Hope using our own money to buy teddy bears that we would donate to hospitals just to help fill the arms of a family walking out of a hospital entirely differently to how they entered,” says Amanda.
“Every bear is tagged in honour of another baby. [It means] families can give their baby some purpose.”
Incredibly, the self-funded charity that Amanda and Toni set up at their kitchen tables has grown into a national organisation with a warehouse and office space; the two co-founders still work tirelessly to raise awareness, backed by a team of dedicated volunteers who donate their time to keep providing support to families around Australia.
One of those volunteers is Angela Reynolds. She first heard about Bears of Hope when her sister- and brother-in-law Kirsti and Tim sadly lost their little boy, Gabriel Timothy Reynolds and Kirsti took home a bear of her own.
Now Angela has joined the charity as the Corporate Support Liason Officer, working around her 18-month-old daughter’s nap times to help in any way she can.
Just like Amanda, Kirsti, Tim, Angela and their family were looking for some way to give purpose to Gabriel’s life; they often make donations to Bears of Hope, usually to mark Gabriel’s birthday, but late last year, Angela reached out to Amanda and Toni and asked how she could help.
“We need to raise awareness,” Angela explains. “There is no funding. Everything we do is through fundraising, and obviously we need more.”
As a result of Toni and Amanda’s original idea, Bears of Hope now provides three different packages to maternity and delivery suites and social work departments around Australia. The contents of each parcel vary, but all contain a beautiful bear, donated in memory of another baby, and brochures and advice to help grieving families when they need it most.
Angela also points out that that advice is available on the charity’s website; she knows that the worst thing to say to someone who has just lost their baby is to say nothing at all, but Bears of Hope provide guides for friends and family members who can’t quite find the right words.
The incredible packages aren’t the only help Bears of Hope provide, though, with phone and email support with councillors available to anyone who needs it and workshops, psychologist facilitated support groups and weekends away guiding parents as the days, weeks and months progress.
“I couldn’t make peace that I was bringing up a child in a world where such shitty things happened to people for no reason,” Amanda is saying now. “I wanted to make sure that no-one else felt as lonely as I did. I can choose to create impact through Jesse’s brief life.
“Now when I think of him, I’m not left in despair. Now my heart is filled with love and joy and gratitude from all that I’ve been able to learn from him.”
For more information about Bears of Hope or to find out how to donate, fundraise and raise awareness, you can visit their website here.
And for more information about Beards of Hope, the incredible way the men of Australia are raising money for the families of babies who didn’t get to come home, click here.