It’s not every day that a news crew visits St. Francis Convent. There must be a compelling reason for any reporter to show interest in a story. It must be meaningful and important. For CBS58 news anchor Natalie Shepherd, the Sisters’ involvement in the teddy bear project for refugee children was more than that. She called it a “great story” that was part of a larger effort to bring comfort to young Afghans living at Wisconsin’s Fort McCoy.
In total, the Sisters contributed over 200 stuffed teddy bears and llamas (an animal familiar to Afghan children) to the bear project. Home to over 4,000 children, the fort housed some 13,000 refugees beginning in the fall of 2021. A South Milwaukee woman, Deb Manske, thought the idea of providing a comfort toy for the children would help as they transition to their new life in the United States. Her idea snowballed, and she had people from throughout Wisconsin and several other states sewing bears for the Afghan kids and contributing to her efforts.
The Sisters became involved when Manske mentioned her idea to Sister Helene Mertes, who belongs to the same poetry group as Manske. Sister Helene brought the idea to the Sisters and, as the saying goes, the rest is history. Manske said the Sisters were one of the biggest contributors to the project, and she shared that information with Natalie Shepherd.
Sisters Richelle Ranallo and Laverne Sommer, who played a big part in the creation of the animals, were interviewed by Shepherd on January 20, along with JPIC Animator Jill Haberman. Sister Richelle sewed for days to prepare the animal patterns for stuffing and decoration by some dozen other Sisters who volunteered their time. Sister Laverne helped by closing what she called the “incision” after the pieces were stuffed. She also helped embroider smiles on their faces.
“I’ve been sewing for almost 70 years,” said Sister Richelle. “When I was asked to do this, I thought any little act of kindness to help those children is worth the effort.”
The two Sisters displayed samples of the animals during the interview, and Natalie Shepherd was impressed as she examined the comfort toys for herself. As she left, she thanked them and Jill for the opportunity to present the story as part of her "Natalie’s Everyday Heroes"news segment. The story aired on the 10 p.m. newscast on February 2, 2022, and again as part of the station’s February 6 edition of "CBS 58 Sunday Morning."