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A donation of warm fuzzies - Stuffed Animal donations

Karen Kadaja was backing out of a parking space when someone recognized her, or more accurately, spotted her back seat full of furry stuffed animals.

``You've got all these critters in the back,'' she recalled the woman saying, ``You're the teddy bear lady!''

Kadaja, 48, a lifelong Fremont resident, rolled her eyes and threw her hands to her cheeks.

``Uh huh,'' she said, her characteristically bubbly tone mixed with a touch of embarrassment, but mostly pride. ``That's me.''

Kadaja (pronounced Ka-DIE-ah) has rightly earned this fuzzy sounding moniker for the volunteer work she's passionately and persistently spearheaded for the past three years. She's the founder of the One Bear Project, a grass-roots effort that solicits hand-me-down stuffed animals for kids in need. In 2003, she netted 317 stuffed animals; mostly teddy bears, but a rabbit and a hedgehog, among other toys, were donated, too. So far this year, 1,723 have been donated. In the course of three years, she said she's handed out more than 7,000 ``teddy bears and friends.'' Her giving is year-round -- collections and donations go way beyond Christmas. She believes the program is the only one of its kind.

The benefits, she says, are twofold. Kids receive small gifts at the worst moments in their lives. And, a culture of giving is created: Giving a used plush toy to someone in need is pretty easy, Kadaja says. Stuffed animals, only. No cash please. With those requirements, who can't rustle up a donation or two?

What started as a one-time good deed between Kadaja and a friend -- both of whom have identical brown bears wearing white bunny ears -- is rubbing off on others. Pizza Patio owner Stuart Barton donates free pies to Kadaja's annual teddy bear parties, Fremont dry cleaner Amir Abrishami washes dirty toys for free, and last month, San Jose State University students hosted a teddy bear drive.

``What better way to help people, especially little kids?'' said Sarah Coffman, 19, of Gilroy, a sophomore studying recreation and leisure who organized the drive, which netted 211 toys.

Bear beginnings

Kadaja held her first teddy bear party in 2003 in a bank. This summer, ``Bear Party 2006,'' was held at the Saddle Rack, a popular Fremont country and western bar, where about 200 people showed up to give away their childhood toys, and stay for pizza, ice cream and entertainment.

Word of the program has spread as far away as Connecticut, where a woman donated a box of bean-bag teddy bears. Another donor forked over life-size Mickey Mouses and a 50-pound Aladdin doll. The generosity means Kadaja now rents three storage lockers for the toys, which she delivers to a variety of causes she selects: individual sick and abused children, or hungry youths at Sister John Marie's Pantry in Fremont.

Children at the Tri-City Homeless Coalition in Fremont are recipients, too.

``Of course, these kids need shoes, or a home. But those things don't come immediately,'' said Linda Soboleski, family service coordinator. ``Giving them a teddy bear puts a smile on their face.''

Soboleski hands children a stuffed animal shortly after they walk in the door.

``I've had a mother tell me that her 16-year-old boy sleeps with his animal at night,'' Soboleski said.

Kadaja is aware that others might think what she's doing is a little odd, spending about 25 hours a week immersed in stuffed animals -- for no money. She will drive to the Sunnyvale library or a San Jose grocery store, any time of year, to collect donations. A woman who favors embroidered sweater sets and leaves the house with her makeup neatly applied, Kadaja said she lives frugally, using savings she earned as a human resources consultant for high-tech companies; she has been semi-retired since 1996. ``But in my world, what I'm doing is normal for me and my friends,'' she said.

`Karu' means bear

Kadaja is a true teddy bear lover. She has about 120 of them scattered throughout her small Fremont home, where she lives alone. Kadaja insists, however, that she's not ``kooky.'' As proof, she offers, she never says, ``Have a Bear-y Good Day.'' And, she's been to a teddy bear festival only once.

``I don't want to be annoying. I know I could talk your ear off into doing something,'' she said. ``But I'm trying to connect with the emotional pull of a teddy bear. I'm trying to remind adults why a teddy bear is so important.''

Teddy bears have been part of Kadaja's life since she was a young girl, raised an only child to Estonian parents who fled the communists in the 1940s. Her late father, August, called her ``Karu,'' which in Estonian, means bear.

Her first teddy bear, worn and brown with a music box inside, came from her grandparents. They didn't have much. But they wanted her and her cousins to have a teddy bear.

She still has it and gets choked up while describing the blue stitching on its belly -- a result of the surgery her mother performed to fix the broken machine inside. The toy reminds her of her family fleeing their homeland and building a new life in the United States.

``I look at the bear and think of hardship, family love and perseverance,'' she said.

Kadaja is thrilled with the success of the project. But she doesn't want things to get too big. Then she couldn't oversee things the way she likes, tallying the number of toy animals on a spread sheet, keeping statistics to tell donors the age and gender of the child they helped. She also is adamant about not being too high-brow about the donations she gets. She encourages everyone, even young children, to give. No matter that the donation is a ratty-looking teddy bear smothered with pet hair. In those cases, Kadaja thanks the donor, and discreetly sends the tattered toys to ``teddy bear heaven.''

I'm trying to instill philanthropy in people and change a life,'' she said. Just a little something. One teddy bear at a time.'

Contact Lisa Fernandez at lfernandez@mercurynews.com or (510) 790-7313
Mercury News

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