When 17-year-old Justin Gutierrez and his mom, Jodi, first heard about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last winter, they were more than moved — as Justin said, they felt “obligated” to do something to help.
While there were many existing aid funds to help Ukrainians displaced by the invasion, Justin saw a specific issue he felt needed more attention: the emotional well-being of Ukrainian children.
Now, months later, the Fox Lane High School rising senior serves as the founder of Operation Ship-A-Bear, a nonprofit that raises money to send teddy bears and cards written by local students to Ukrainian children.
“When you’re really young, having a stuffed animal with you is super reassuring. It makes you feel comfortable. So, we thought if we could get a stuffed animal like mine to as many Ukrainian refugee children as possible, then it would serve to benefit their emotional well-being,” explained Justin, who lives in Pound Ridge.
Launching a nonprofit is no easy task, but with the help of several local schools and organizations in northern Westchester and Stamford, Connecticut, Operation Ship-A-Bear has already packed and shipped hundreds of teddy bears. The first shipment arrived in Ukraine last month.
For Justin and his family, using Operation Ship-A-Bear to strengthen bonds, both within local communities and between America and Ukraine, is central to the project. From the start, Justin said he wanted to include handwritten cards with the teddy bears as a way to “build connections between countries.”
“If we have kids writing cards and signing their name on it with a note or a picture on the front, then it (shows) Ukrainian children that there are people who actually care and who are connecting with them on a more personal level,” he said.
This led him to reach out to local school districts to see if middle school students could help create cards with messages and drawings to be packaged with the teddy bears.
Teachers were very receptive to the idea, and by the end of the school year, students from the Fox Lane, Pleasantville and Stamford school districts, along with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Stamford and Northern Westchester, all contributed to the effort.
Justin praised the level of support the program received in his home school district, especially from outgoing Bedford Central Superintendent Joel Adelberg, who retired June 30.
“We had no expSectation that they would get this done because there was only a couple of days left in school. “But we got an email a few days later, and sure enough, the middle school finished their cards,” Justin said.
In neighboring Pleasantville, middle school teacher Bryan Gaiser engaged his sixth-grade students over two days of class time to write cards for the project.
As a home skills teacher who taught some of his students to sew their own teddy bears earlier in the year, Mr. Gaiser and his students were particularly excited to help Operation Ship-A-Bear. Watching the care his students took in making the cards and the concern they showed in addressing the crisis in Ukraine was especially meaningful for the teacher.
“In our district, we spend a lot of time talking about ‘don’t be a bystander, be an upstander,’ and be empathetic to the people around you,” he said. “I think this just puts something tangible in their hands that helps them be mindful.”
To tackle the language barrier, Operation Ship-A-Bear is working with local students from the School of Ukrainian Studies in Stamford and from Plast Ukrainian Scouting Organization to translate messages from English-speaking students into Ukrainian.
Terenia Hankewycz, a Dobbs Ferry native who works with Plast, said local Ukrainian kids who are scouts with Plast have recently helped translate cards, including working on the project at the Yonkers Ukrainian Heritage Festival.
As Plast scouts mobilize to pack and send hundreds of first aid kits to Ukraine, Ms. Hankewycz said that watching efforts like Operation Ship-A-Bear come together in this time of human crisis has been “heartwarming.”
“It’s really wonderful to see people who aren’t even Ukrainian putting in the effort and trying to do as much as they can to help,” Ms. Hankewycz said.
Justin and his family members have also found ways to channel their personal passions for community service into the nonprofit.
Ms. Gutierrez serves as chairperson of the Stamford Partnership, a nonprofit that promotes local development there, and helped Operation Ship-A-Bear achieve its status as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit by bringing it under the umbrella of the Stamford Partnership.
Justin also credits his godmother, Seema Boesky, as a major inspiration and mentor for Operation Ship-A-Bear nonprofit.
Ms. Boesky, a local resident who has served on the board of directors of the Boys & Girls Club of Northern Westchester, describes herself as an avid philanthropist and said she sees this generosity reflected in both Justin’s and Jodi’s drive to found Operation Ship-A-Bear.
“It’s just a thrill to watch. (Justin is) always thinking philanthropically, thinking about how he can be of help or of service. It’s just natural to him,” Ms. Boesky commented.
Justin said he and his godmother have learned a lot from each other about philanthropy through the project, impacting the communities around them for the better.
As the war in Ukraine continues, Justin said he doesn’t see Operation Ship-A-Bear slowing down anytime soon — for him, this is a long-term project.
“Once the war in Ukraine is over, and those children are back into their homes, and everything’s back to normal, it is our obligation to not stop,” he said. “It’s our obligation to continue to help whoever needs it.”
Operation Ship-A-Bear is continuing to accept donations, all of which go toward shipping costs for teddy bears, through its website. To make a donation and learn more, visit operationshipabear.org.