Collecting comfort items for children separated from parents

11/30/2017, 3:56 p.m.
Most people wouldn’t think something as simple as a teddy bear would make an emotional impact, but Cynthia Downing, creator ...
Cynthia Downing is surrounded by some of the stuffed animals she has collected for The Comfort Movement project she started to help Richmond area youngsters whose parents are incarcerated.

By Ronald E. Carrington

Most people wouldn’t think something as simple as a teddy bear would make an emotional impact, but Cynthia Downing, creator of The Comfort Movement, has a different opinion.

When Ms. Downing’s mother was hospitalized in Brooklyn, N.Y., where Ms. Downing grew up, she bought a stuffed animal from the hospital gift shop to comfort her mom when no family was there.

“When my Mom passed away, that stuffed animal became a comfort to me,” Ms. Downing recalled.

Two weeks after her mother’s burial, the stuffed animal brought her solace when her brother was murdered.

That was in 1989.

Now, Ms. Downing is using stuffed animals to aid children undergoing the trauma of separation from a parent because of incarceration. Through The Comfort Movement, she is collecting all sizes and shapes of furry creatures that youngsters can keep.

Working through the nonprofit Assisting Families of Inmates at 2nd Presbyterian Church in Downtown, she hopes the stuffed animals will be tangible expressions of caring that will bring comfort and encouragement to elementary-age children.

“I thought about children being unhappy having separation anxiety, depression” after visiting a parent who is incarcerated. “Then I thought about what the teddy bears could do for them,” Ms. Downing said.

“It’s all about doing something good and comforting a child and their parents during the holiday, as well as the rest of the year.”

Ms. Downing is an advertising traffic coordinator with the Richmond Free Press. She was propelled to start The Comfort Movement project after participating in a self-expression leadership program in Northern Virginia. Members were charged with designing projects to give expression to something that held personal meaning for them.

That’s when the seed of collecting teddy bears for children started to grow. It began to blossom after Ms. Downing read a newsletter about Assisting Families of Inmates and later found out about its Milk and Cookies program that supports Richmond area elementary schoolchildren of incarcerated parents. The program helps children with coping skills to deal with having a parent removed from their lives for an extended period.

“Trained personnel meet with elementary children once a week throughout the school year to talk about what it’s like to have an incarcerated parent,” said Angie Strickland, AFOI’s director of programs and development. “For these children, it is difficult. They miss having their whole family with them every day.

“Society tends to focus on the offender and the crime … but not the fallout,” she continued.

The children often are the forgotten or silent victims, according to research. They are victims of circumstances that are beyond their control.

Ms. Strickland said AFOI welcomes Ms. Downing’s efforts to provide youngsters in the program with stuffed animals. Ms. Downing also is collecting underclothes for the children because it is a necessity that no one notices, she said, and many children go without.

Her goal: To collect 200 stuffed animals and 200 sets of underclothes, including T-shirts and underwear for children ages 5 through 12, before Christmas.

“It’s all about giving back,” Ms. Downing said, recalling warm memories of her mother, who she said was generous almost to a fault.

“My Mom would take in homeless people, abandoned children or runaways and feed them and give them clothes,” Ms. Downing said.

“If my brothers and I were out in the neighborhood and saw homeless people, we would bring them home and feed them. That’s what we were taught, and that’s what we have done all our lives.”

The Comfort Movement continues that spirit of helping others, she said.

“Giving is a wonderful feeling,” Ms. Downing said. “Love is important in everyone’s lives. And it’s all love to sit in the middle of the floor with overstuffed teddy bears and happy children.”

Interested in donating a stuffed animal or underclothes? Contact Ms. Downing at (804) 638-9506; at the Free Press, (804) 644-0496, or via email at thecomfortmovement@gmail.com.