Bama Buddies builds bears for children

Sophomore David Phelps leads this years Bama Buddies campaign, which seeks to bring groups together while making stuffed animals for children. / Submitted photo

Looking for some Christmas karma? Try stuffing a bear.

The third annual Bama Buddies campaign, a community service project hosted by the Source, lets students build stuffed animals for needy kids in Tuscaloosa.

David Phelps, who heads this year’s Buddies campaign, said the program gives organizations a service opportunity while fostering cooperation between isolated groups. But, of course, it all comes down to the kids.

“In the end, it’s not about the builder,” Phelps said, “it’s about the child receiving the bear.”

The finished bears will be passed on to local charities that will distribute the toys to kids in the community, including Tuscaloosa’s One Place, which aids poor communities, and RISE Tuscaloosa, a program for disabled children.

The scheme is simple. Organizations can buy raw materials for $10 a bear and either host their own stuffing party or participate in the Bonanza, a community stuffing event set for Nov. 18. There are eight species to choose from, including a lion, a frog and a panda.

There’s also a koala. “It’s got really intense eyes,” Phelps said.

Individual students will be able to make their own bears at a table in the Ferguson Center starting Nov. 7. Stuffing is a quick and easy operation; customization isn’t as deep as the program’s ads (“Stuff a pirate bear!” “Stuff a royal bear!”) imply.

But according to Maegan Stewart, participating with the Association of Nursing Students, even a little effort can make an enormous difference to a child.

“It gives each person an opportunity to put a piece of themselves into the community and say, ‘I made this. I gave this,’” Stewart said.

The campaign brought in about 750 bears in its first run, but the number dropped significantly the next year. Phelps and his team are new and don’t know the cause of the drop, but that hasn’t dented their confidence. This year, they aim for 1,000 bears.

Project Coordinator Mary Katherine Sweeney said publicity is vital for reaching such an ambitious goal.

“We’re just trying to hit more people with it and really get the word out,” Sweeney said.

This year, the team has ramped up its publicity with a new marketing campaign, cooperation with the Honors College Assembly, and its own website. According to Sweeney, while the April tornado has made students more community-minded, organizations could overlook Bama Buddies in the flurry of new service projects.

“[With] so many service projects going on, everyone can’t participate in everything,” she said. “We want people to know about it and that it’s not very hard to prepare.”

Phelps said Tuscaloosa needs campaigns like Bama Buddies more than ever.

“Naturally, these bears will be going to tornado victims,” he said. “While it’s not publicized as a tornado relief initiative, we’re expected to help in that relief process.”

So why not just take the 10 bucks and go to Toys-R-Us?

Bama Buddies isn’t just about building a bear, but building a community.

“Knowing that someone specifically made it for you, that someone took the time and the money,” Phelps said, “that can really speak to how much the child is valued.”

Organizations can sign up for Bama Buddies at thesource.ua.edu until Nov. 18. Individuals can participate in the Build-a-Thon Nov. 7 through 19 in the Ferguson Center lobby.