02/19/2001 at 01:00 AM EST
Watching news footage of homeless children on Christmas Day in 1996, 8-year-old Caitlin Phelan of Ipswich, Mass., and her mother, Robin, were in tears. "Caitlin said, 'Why?' " recalls Robin. "I said, 'I don't know—but I know we can make a difference.' "
The item that would make the difference was close at hand: the teddy bear that Caitlin, now a seventh grader, was holding. "I said, 'If this comforts me, it must comfort other children,' " Caitlin says. That inspired Phelan, now 37, to create the Teddy Bear Foundation Inc., which donates the toys to kids in crisis—some homeless, some abused—in the Boston area.
For children with little else to hold on to, a bear can keep despair at bay. "We had a couple of kids in the shelter who were having nightmares," says Donna Bremberg, community liaison with Help for Abused Women and Their Children in Gloucester. "We told them, 'When you wake up, hug your teddy bear.' It seemed to help."
The foundation has distributed more than 9,000 bears to date, and Robin, a nurse, is seeking backers to expand the operation nationwide. To make time for her mission, she has cut back her nursing work to one day a month. Caitlin, meanwhile, runs the foundation's youth wing, the Cub Club. Although donations of money and bears have arrived from as far away as Florida, the mail Robin cherishes most comes from children like Jimmy, who attends a live-in school for abused kids. "Thank you for the new friend," he wrote. "I will never let him go."