By CAROL SOUTH
TRAVERSE CITY -- When a handful of handmade dolls came his way, Jim Lagowski was unsure what to do with them.
Each had been lovingly crafted by a former mother-in-law, a Buffalo, N.Y., resident who died about a year ago. When Lagowski decided to give a few to North Flight EMS -- who in turn could give them to a scared child -- it sparked a new idea to benefit area youth.
A longtime member of the Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 234, Lagowski and the organization launched a teddy bear donation program. They added the effort to the organization's existing scholarship program, which has granted 11 $500 scholarships to students in Northwestern Michigan College's Aviation program.
Chapter 234's latest effort has provided hundreds of teddy bears to area organizations that work with young people in need. These organizations include Wings of Mercy, North Flight EMS, Elk Rapids EMS, Grand Traverse Metro Fire Department, the Women's Resource Center, Munson Medical Center's Emergency Room, the Father Fred Foundation and Catholic Human Services.
"The teddy bears help calm and brighten their day, often (in a) traumatic situation," said Lagowski, of Williamsburg.
Each soft, huggable bear is packaged in a Ziploc bag and includes a note: "This bear is just for you! Your new friend likes big hugs."
Lagowski made the final donation of the first crop of teddy bears Thursday at Child and Family Services of Northwestern Michigan. He arrived at the human services agency in Traverse City with four oversized boxes of teddy bears and a big smile.
The appeal of the bears is timeless, said Liz Olson, an intake coordinator with Child and Family Services
"So many of these kids come in and they're scared and confused, it's amazing how comforting a bear can be," she noted.
The agency serves 13 counties and on any given day has 200 kids in foster care, serving more than 500 kids just in foster care annually. While Child and Family Services also offers other programs for youth, the donation from EAA Chapter 234 was especially timely since May is National Foster Care Awareness Month.
"This just makes it a little bit easier," said Linda Sommerville, director of volunteer relations for Child and Family Services. "Jim wants this to be the beginning of a long-term relationship with us as they plan to continue supplying our foster children with 'cuddlies.'"
Lagowski noted that Chapter 234, which includes 45 members in a four-county area, is looking at ways to continue the teddy bear donation program.
"The trick for us is how are we going to sustain this -- we need a process because it's very clear there's a market," he said, adding that the first batch of bears was purchased at a great price thanks to the help of Don Maxbauer of Ace Hardware.
For more information on Child and Family Services of Northwestern Michigan, call 946-8975 or see www.cfsnwmi.org. For more information on the Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 234, see www.eaa234.org.