MONTREAL — Dianne Scott gets choked up when she talks about the frightened and abused children in Third World countries who are finding comfort in Canadian-made teddy bears.
But they're not the soft, plush animals that children normally snuggle up with under a warm blanket.
These bears have been painstakingly made in Ontario and crocheted using cut-up strips of plastic milk bags.
"A missionary or a doctor will bring them into a hospital for children who are getting AIDS shots or have been mistreated," the 69-year-old Scott said in a recent interview.
"They are only used for therapy or where you have children who are hiding and you can't get them out of the bush."
The bears are offered to children who have been subjected to atrocities by soldiers in countries like the Congo.
Scott, who lives in Dunnville, Ont., says the bears are a small part of a recyclable plastic milk bag project she started in 2006.
The longtime activist is now co-ordinating more than 70 groups that crochet the bags into sleeping mats which are then shipped out to poorer countries.
That doesn't include the dozens of groups of people who collect and sort the bags.
"I've had environmentalists approach me, I've had school groups, scouts, guides, summer camps, you name it," Scott said. "It just boggles my mind."
The washable mats repel bugs and provide an alternative to sleeping on the damp and bare ground.
They are made from the plastic of the outer milk bag which holds the three smaller clear bags inside.
"In Haiti, if they don't have the mats, they use banana leaves and (they cause) paper cuts in their skin," she added.
The plastic bags are also crocheted into tote bags that can be used for carrying groceries or as school bags.
Scott said she got the idea from a Lutheran church group in Windsor, Ont, which was one of the first to start crocheting the mats in 2002.
"We have right now over 800 mats," she said.
The self-described "milk-bag lady" says a warehouse is filled with mats which have come in from Burlington, Hamilton and as far away as Thunder Bay.
"Every group has their own place to send them to and a lot of the groups I'm working with bring them down to Dunnville and we ship them in to Haiti," she said.
Some of the mats are also sent to Third World countries through organizations like Toronto-based Canadian Food for Children.
Joan Simone and her husband started the international children's aid group 25 years ago with help from the late Mother Teresa , whom she had met several times.
She says the mats are used for packing when food and clothing are shipped out to 22 different countries.
"Every day a container is going out somewhere, sometimes two containers (and) with the mats, if we've got them."
In the past, shipping the mats out separately proved to a headache because of red tape and high costs.
The organization, which operates out of Simone's home, sends food donated by Canadian companies to South America, Central America and the Philippines.
It's not easy to crochet wide strips of plastic into mats and some eager volunteers have found it to be rough on the hands.
But that hasn't stopped students at a Montreal-area high school who have been crocheting since last November.
The concept was introduced to the "Green Teams" at John Rennie High School by Sue Simatos, who runs the school's community office after hearing about what was going on in Ontario.
The Green Teams are teachers and students who are involved in both environmental and humanitarian projects.
Rachelle George-Bernard, a science teacher at the school, says at least 10 students, including boys, are now crocheting.
"First the guys were a little hesitant, but now that they're seeing all the young girls getting into it, they're not hesitant any more to get into crocheting for a good cause," she said.
She points out that the students are part of the school's Green teams.
"This is huge from an environmental standpoint.
"If you think of all the bags that are not going into landfill sites, you think of the fact that they're being reused and potentially they're lasting for 40 years.
George-Bernard says a lot of students have also been helping out by collecting the bags.
"We weren't getting enough so we started promoting it in our classes," she said. "They're all bringing in milk bags."
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Wow what a cool story and idea!