At first, the stuffed animals went into shoe boxes sent to kids in other countries. Then they began showing up anonymously on windshields of vehicles parked at Fargo hospitals.
The Forum's Mike Nowatzki wrote about this Tuesday after the fuzzy little creatures appeared on cars at the north parking ramp of Sanford Medical Center in downtown Fargo.
That led a woman to contact The Forum.
Yes, she was the mystery person behind the animals, and she'd tell her story to clear up any misconceptions on one condition: she not be identified, even though a number of people know who she is.
"This isn't about me," she said. "I don't want the spotlight."
So The Forum is honoring her request. We'll tell her story without revealing her name.
We trust the stuffed bear she found praying in her dryer won't tell on her, either.
Avoiding the landfill
It all began in 2001 when she and her family filled shoe boxes for Operation Christmas Child, the nationwide program for which churches fill boxes with items for millions of kids overseas.
Those boxes include such items as clothing, school supplies, toothpaste - and stuffed animals.
She bought the animals at first, but over the years, after learning of her efforts, people began bringing them to her. "It seemed in almost every closet there was a bag of nearly untouched stuffed animals," she says.
Sometimes the animals were too large for shoe boxes, though, and appeared destined for the landfill. But there had to be a better use for them and other unused animals, she thought.
So she began distributing them to nursing and retirement homes, to church dinners, to parades to be tossed to kids. One child came home from the hospital to find the yard full of Pooh Bears.
Then came the tough days last December when the woman's father lay dying in a Fargo hospital.
No longer bored
The adults spent hours sitting with him. But the kids in the family, of junior high school age, became bored silly.
Ah, our gal came up with an idea. Her car contained many animals left over from the shoe box project. Kids, why don't you put them on the cars in the parking lot?
Great idea. The kids did just that, then stood in the hospital windows and watched as people discovered the animals.
"It became a nightly adventure" for the kids in her family, our gal says. "They were so excited to see how the people, including kids, reacted."
Her father, sick as he was, enjoyed hearing about it. "He was a practical joker," his daughter says, "so he got a kick out of it."
So it was that at his funeral, every car in the parking lot got a stuffed animal.
Bringing a smile
And so it began. And so it continues: She and her sibling and her sibling's kids are out there putting stuffed animals on vehicles in hospital parking lots.
Sometimes they know the person who is hospitalized, like a boy who had his leg amputated.
Most of the time, though, they don't. But they know that some of the cars parked by the Roger Maris Cancer Center are there because of children being treated there. If possible, they want to be sure to get animals on those cars.
To relieve Sanford Medical Center of any worries, though, she called and gave her name. A hospital spokesman said Wednesday that knowing the story, Sanford has no problem with wild animals (the stuffed kind) showing up in the parking lot.
She and the family distribute the animals year-round. She keeps stuffed animals in her car, so if she happens to see someone who appears to be stressed out, she'll sneak an animal onto that person's car.
"We just want to bring a smile to someone who is hurting," she says.
She hasn't had to buy an animal for a long time. They come from many sources: family, friends, stores that are overstocked. She stores them in a garage attic, in her late father's vacated rural home, elsewhere.
But look, lady, since so many people know you're doing this, why not run your name in the paper?
No way. If some people know, fine, she says. But if they don't, even better.
"The world doesn't revolve around me," she says. "This is a God thing. He has blessed our family beyond anything we deserve." This is just a small way of passing along those blessings, she says.
"Life isn't fun sometimes," she says.
"So even if someone who is hurting finds an animal and laughs and then throws it away, at least for a moment it was fun.
"Maybe they'll pay it forward. Maybe they'll realize someone cares. God sure does."
Yes, the animal distribution will continue this Christmas season. "My family is coming here soon, on the anniversary of my dad's death, and they want to do it again on that anniversary," she says.
Besides, another member of her family is ill, giving them another reason to spend time at the hospital and to place more animals on parking lot vehicles.
Critters are clean
The original Forum story about the animals noted that the former MeritCare Children's Hospital in Fargo has received teddy bears in mailing boxes for many years. All that is known about them is that they appear to come from Horace, N.D.
Our gal says they're not from her and has no clue who this anonymous donor is.
Then there's the question about the safety of a stuffed animal given by someone you don't know.
Fargo police Sgt. Mark Lykken has good advice. He says to "use your own common sense, and if you feel the stuffed animal is acceptable, keep it. But personally I would not accept something on my car of which I didn't know the origin."
Our gal understands the concern. But she wants it known that all used animals she gets are washed and dried three times in super-high heat. "Those animals are really clean," she says.
They include the battery-powered talking stuffed bear who had just gone through that rugged hot drying cycle.
Our gal opened the dryer door to find him with his little paws together praying, "Now I lay me down to sleep ... "