- Associated Press - Saturday, June 25, 2016

ANDERSON, S.C. (AP) - Four-year-old Levi Alexander walked through the library door at the West Market Early Childhood Education Center, holding onto his bear with its black-and-red covering decorated with the North Carolina State University logo.

He was not alone.

The other children with him also came, holding bears.

They all were sewn with same pattern. Some were decorated with flowers instead of sports team logos and school letters. All were held tightly by their owners.

“I sleep with mine,” Alexander proudly proclaimed. “I’ve had it five days.”

Ask around to the other children, all either 4 or 5 years old, and they will say the same thing: They play with their bears and they sleep with them. Some children, like 5-year-old Milaea Tucker has named her bear, “Sophia.”

Five-year-old Braylee Smith said she takes her bear out to the trampoline and jumps with it.

One by one, they all tell the stories of their bears: their names, their colors and the favorite thing that they do with their bear.

All the while, Barbara Dunlap listens and smiles.

This is part of her legacy.

It is what Dunlap has spent about eight years doing. For about five years, she made about 1,200 a year with the help of some of the volunteers who were part of the AT&T; Pioneer Volunteers, and then gave them out to children at schools across Anderson County and local charities like the Salvation Army.

The bear making is not a project that Dunlap started. She said the Pioneer volunteer group started it. But she got “hooked on them.”

For the past five years, Dunlap has been making the bears solely herself for just the incoming children at the West Market Early Childhood Education Center. It amounts to about 250 bears a year.

“This is the ideal school because the kids like bears,” Dunlap said. “When they come in, they are only three years old. They’ve got to be terrified at school. I hope this helps them stay calm.”

Dunlap is quick to say that she is not a seamstress. She has a wooden pattern, something simple to follow, that she uses. And slowly, all year long, she works on the batch of bears for the next year.

Suzie Bannister, the principal at this early childhood education center, said she remembers the first time that Dunlap came into the school on Dobbins Bridge Road, asking if she could give them some homemade bears.

“I thought she was just going to give us a few,” Bannister said. “But then, she came in with enough for every student. The bears are something they can hold on to. Until they get comfortable at school, those bears really help.”

Bannister said some students have slept better at home, even, because they have the bears to hold onto.

In late July or early August, before the school year starts, Dunlap will arrive at the campus with her five big trash bags full of the bears. All of them she has cut out, sewn together and stuffed with cotton and tied with a ribbon. There are no plastic parts on these bears. She wants them to be safe for the little hands that will hold them.

But this year is Dunlap’s last year.

“My fingers are getting where it is hard to do things with them,” Dunlap said, rubbing her hands together. “And I can’t sit at the sewing machine that long.”

But her bear project is not dying.

Bannister said she is already recruiting the help of teachers and staff members at the school. They are going to take on the task of making the bears as a way of building up the staff as a team and keeping the project going.

“She’s been an inspiration to me,” Bannister said. “Just seeing her continue to work at this project. What a wonderful thing for our children to each have their own bear. We are looking forward to being able to continue her work.”

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Information from: Anderson Independent-Mail, http://www.andersonsc.com

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