Sometimes a stuffed toy is more than a toy.
When it's gifted from the handiwork of a veteran to the hands of a child, it can become encouragement and even a challenge to help others.
That's the concept of the "Challenge Bear," a teddy bear sewn of military grade cloth by a group of Southland veterans who've found sewing something of value to be helpful in overcoming their own personal challenges.
It seems to be working for both.
Within moments of veterans bringing challenge bears to classrooms at Taper Elementary School in San Pedro, students were volunteering ideas for community service.
"Donate stuff to the homeless shelter," said one fourth grader.
"Recycle!" suggested another.
"Pick up trash at the beach," piped in a second grader.
"Those are awesome ways you can serve your community," the students were told by Jim Cragg, director of the nonprofit endeavor known as Green Vets that is producing and distributing the bears.
"The challenge bear, for marginalized veterans, is connection with society," Cragg explained in an interview.
Himself a veteran and Army reservist, Maj. Cragg made his mark in the business world manufacturing cloth products for military and law enforcement. Green Vets go beyond, making such things as recyclable grocery bags, and now challenge bears.
The first one appeared from fabric scraps infused with imagination.
"They were sewing pouches," Cragg recalled. "And someone said, 'Hey, I can sew a bear."
The veterans doing the sewing are a group that has come together over the past several years, many introduced to Green Vets through the West Los Angeles VA Healthcare Center, where a sewing program developed by Cragg serves as a form of therapy.
In 2012, NBC4 watched the veterans sewing harnesses that would enable servicemembers in combat zones to carry recently developed trauma sensors, as a means of detecting potential brain injury and alerting the need for medical care.
For veterans confronted with disabilities and homelessness and fallen out of the workforce, it became a source of pride to make something to help current GIs.
"It's good therapy for me," said Morris Thompson.
Alonzo Day wore a shirt bearing the message, "stitch or die."
"I went through a whole lot of tough years," Day said. "Now I'm starting to get it together."
The first bears actually went overseas to combat zones. Servicemembers would take photos of the bear — perhaps adorned with their unit's patch — then send the bear home.
"It's a physical connection," said Clark Acton, another veteran who works with Green Vets.
Then along came the idea of the challenge bear, not only to inspire service, but also as a means to make connections outside the military community.
"We want our children to be leaders," said Taper Elementary Principal Steve Skrumbis. "Part of that is helping others."
"You see in their faces how excited they get about it," said Deirdre Brinley, who served in Iraq with the 101st Airborne. After returning to civilian life, she went to college, majoring in graphics and audiovisual technology, and found herself working with Green Vets. She sees the challenge bear as a "win-win" for both its makers and its recipients.
Those who take the challenge are encouraged to make use of the bear's Velcro tabs and let the stuffed toy tag along for photos to be posted online on the Green Vets Facebook page. It's not unlike the Flat Stanley craze that was popular with children a few years ago — except the challenge bear is along not just for adventures, but specifically community service.
"We've gotten lots of pictures of beach cleanup and work in parks," said Acton, after the classroom visits at Taper Elementary. "I'm looking forward to seeing what we get from these kids."