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.
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
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
``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
Soboleski hands children a stuffed animal shortly after they walk in
``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
``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
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 email@example.com or (510)