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Helping children with incarcerated parents feel loved

His mother gave birth to him when she was 19, and when he was growing up, she was often out at parties. His father, a college football player, left when he was 2.

His mother gave birth to him when she was 19, and when he was growing up, she was often out at parties. His father, a college football player, left when he was 2.

By the time he was 16, he knew what it was like not to have parents around. But the boy, a detention resident at the Chester County Youth Center, never forgot something his great-grandparents gave to him when he was a toddler: a tan, stuffed bear to cuddle and keep him company.

"I don't want anyone not to have that affection I didn't have as a kid," said the boy, whom The Inquirer agreed not to name because he is a juvenile.

So he joined 11 other children at the center in helping to stuff 200 bears, puppies, bunnies, ducks, tigers, and unicorns with cotton. The stuffed animals will be Christmas gifts for children whose mothers and fathers will not be home for the holidays - because they are inmates down the road at Chester County Prison.

"I'm hoping they get to have something to help them feel comfort and feel safe, something to clutch onto when nobody else is there," the boy said.

For about the last 25 years, volunteers raised money from friends to either buy more than 200 stuffed animals or, for the last eight years, the materials for the children at the Youth Center to make them. But this year, the money needed - about $5 per bear - did not materialize.

The Youth Center staff thought continuing the program was important both for the children visiting their incarcerated parents and the children at the center, some of whom use the program to fulfill community-service requirements.

So for the first time, the Youth Center tapped the center's budget to pay for the materials. Staffers hope eventually to expand the program beyond Christmastime.

There is something special about stuffed animals, said Jack Crans, the prison chaplain, who has worked with incarcerated people for more than four decades.

When Crans went to youth centers, he said, he would inevitably hear teenagers who might have been arrested for aggravated assault or other violent offenses ask for a stuffed animal for Christmas.

"Christmas is a sad time," Crans said. "Most people don't like to think about it when they're locked up."

On Sunday, Crans will pick up five boxes of stuffed animals from the Youth Center, load them into a van, and drive them over to the prison.

Starting Monday, officers will distribute the toys to children visiting their parents. It's a positive experience for the youths, and the parents appreciate that their kids leave with toys.

"When they come to jail to see Mom or Dad, they get a teddy bear," Crans said. "You can't get away from the fact that we're dealing with moms and dads and kids."

Doris Boyd, a volunteer at the Youth Center, leads the children in making the stuffed animals. She and her husband, Joe, have been involved with the program from the beginning and have helped raise money. She said the children at the Youth Center enjoy making the toys.

"It's amazing the love that is shared because of the bears," Boyd said. "I tell them, 'Just think how many kids are going to have big eyes because of you.' "