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Stuffed animals minister to young and old

Toys bring comfort and joy

By Donna Frischknecht Jackson | Presbyterians Today

A variety of stuffed animals, part of East Side Presbyterian’s stuffed animal ministry, sit in a pew waiting for their new homes. The animals are free for the taking and often shared with those needing a hug. Ellen Jacobs

As a therapist, Ellen Jacobs knows something about the healing power that can be found in a hug. She also knows all too well the great need among young and old alike to feel loved. That is why Jacobs, a member of East Side Presbyterian Church in Ashtabula, Ohio, can often be found playing with stuffed animals. Well, maybe not playing, but rather inspecting and cleaning cuddly bears, giraffes, bunnies and more, before tying a tag on them and placing them in the church’s pews.

The animals are part of East Side’s stuffed animal ministry, which Jacobs freely admits was not her idea, but one that she was introduced to while visiting a church in Florida some years ago.

Jacobs remembers entering the sanctuary with her then young children and noticing a teddy bear in each pew. When she asked about them, a woman told her they were part of the church’s outreach ministry and were there for anyone to take who might need comfort.

Jacobs didn’t take a bear that day. “But I did take the tag describing the ministry so that I could bring the idea to my church,” she said.

Session blessed the stuffed animal ministry. A call for new or slightly used animals was well received, says Jacobs, adding that it was decided to welcome all stuffed animals and not limit the ministry to just teddy bears. Word spread about the animals, with a local hospital reaching out to East Side, inquiring if some could be shared with patients. “The stuffed animals do provide comfort,” said Jacobs, recalling one story of a young boy placed in foster care who was given a stuffed frog by a member of East Side.

“He loved frogs, so we searched for one just for him,” said Jacobs. The boy was read the tag attached to the frog, which told him that it has “ … spent time in the midst of our congregation. It has heard Scriptures read, sermons preached, prayers prayed and songs of praise sung. … It comes to offer you comfort and peace with the blessings of worship and love.”

Over the years, the stuffed animal ministry has also been blessing adults, as Jacob reminds, “Even grown-ups need something to hold.” The animals also find their way into care baskets, especially at Christmastime.

There is, though, another aspect to the stuffed animal ministry that no one saw coming. With the focus on giving the toys away, there was also the opportunity to invite children to help others by donating their beloved toys to the ministry.

Jacobs’ friend, also a therapist, in fact, suggested to a little girl she was trying to wean from her own “stuffy,” as she called the stuffed toy, to give the animal to another child.

“The girl decided that it would be a wonderful thing to do, and she gave her ‘stuffy’ to the church,” said Jacobs. The girl was later told that it soon got adopted.

East Side Presbyterian has been gradually taking steps to move back to in-person worship. As they do, Jacobs has been getting ready, too, cleaning and inspecting the stuffed animals.

After all these months of digital worship, it is safe to say the stuffed animals will be the first worshipers back in the pews, ready to soak in the prayers and the songs, and then go out to share the love of God — one bear, giraffe, frog or bunny hug at a time.

Donna Frischknecht Jackson is editor of Presbyterians Today.

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