APOLLO BEACH - In 2010 Pat Bewley was recovering from surgery when the friend of a friend gave her a teddy bear. The woman, Diana Hazell, lived across the street from where Bewley was staying at the time.
"It brought tears to my eyes; I was so touched," Bewley said. "It reminded me God was with me even in all my pain."
Bewley recognized that teddy bears symbolize love and security for many. After she recuperated, she proposed that her church - Calvary Lutheran in Apollo Beach - start a new ministry. It would involve having church members embrace the concept of sharing the stuffed comforts with anyone they felt was in need.
The idea sat around for about a year until, in January 2012, Bewley stepped up and offered to lead the effort. The church had no budget for her Teddy Bear Ministry, so it was "pretty much a matter of begging for bears, begging for money," she said. The first bears went out in February.
"Once we got past the initial outlay, the response from the congregation was unbelievable," Bewley said.
Here's how the program works.
Some of the teddy bears come from individual donations of members, who place them in a large box in the narthex of the church. The bulk are purchased from a wholesale supplier, using cash donations - also from church members.
The bears are stored in a "den" in the sanctuary after the ministry's 10 committee members sort and prep them at home by placing bows and tags on them. They are placed at the ends of every pew - a total of about 70 every Sunday - for anyone to take to give to someone in need.
"Worship is central to who we are as followers of Jesus," said The Rev. Derek Hoven. "Our Teddy Bear Ministry gives us an opportunity to carry the love and grace of God that we experience during worship into the lives of people in our community and beyond."
Hoven said the bears that sit in the sanctuary during worship are "a visible sign of the prayers that we lift up for those we celebrate with and have concerns for. When a bear is shared with someone, it becomes a tangible reminder of the love we carry for them and so a reminder of the unconditional love God has for them.
"It is all about relationships, and these bears help us to keep givers and receivers connected in meaningful ways."
When a member takes a bear, they are asked to donate another to replace it or make a $10 donation to the ministry. But that's only if they are able.
As of July 7, 1,049 teddy bears have left the church, Bewley said.
Calvary's Teddy Bear Ministry recently adopted My Warrior's Place and began giving bears to the veterans staying at the retreat and helping with chores around the grounds. Since then the youth and men's groups also have gotten involved.
The ministry is looking for other locations and recipients. Teddy bear donations from the public are welcome. If you'd like to help, call (813) 645-1305 or stop by the church at 5309 U.S. 41 N.