It was while teaching chlidred to read, that Samantha Lee realized the young people needed lessons in something else.
Well, two things, actually: empathy and sewing.
Lee, now a 17-year-old Notre Dame High School senior, was volunteering a few years ago in an elementary school for a reading literacy program. While engaging with the students, she heard one complaint from them over and over.
The other children in the school were being mean to each other.
“My mom was also a school teacher and I would hear her come home and hear a lot about similar issues,” said Lee. "I said, 'OK, I want to fix this issue, somehow, someway, in some form.'"
This prompted Lee to weave together an activity that she felt would bring the kids together. It involved brown fabric, sewing needles and a lot of plush.
Lee started the afterschool program, Stitched Together, during her sophomore year as project for young kids to learn how to put together a teddy bear from scratch.
She would then have them donate the finished product to other children that might not have stuffed animals of their own.
Since then, Lee has helped kids from all over San Jose stitch together over 500 teddy bears to donate to organizations such as Children Facing Domestic Abuse, YWCA Silicon Valley and even to children in the country of Ghana.
“I'm not only teaching them to be advocated of kindness in their own community, but that they're able to help heal someone else who needs that bear a lot more than they do,” she said.
One of the most impactful moments Lee experienced in the program happened when she was explaining to a group of kids that some of the teddy bears would go to Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford.
A girl among the group of kids who was usually upbeat, suddenly got quiet. She told Lee that her mother died of cancer, so she wanted her bear to be donated to another person struggling with the same disease.
“I was not expecting that at all when I went on that random Thursday afternoon. I was tearing up when that happened,” said Lee.
Describing it as a dying art, Lee said her grandma taught her the ins and outs of sewing when she was about 5 years old.
Lee said that one of the reasons she chose to have the kids create teddy bears is so that the stuffed animals would encourage children to continue learning outside the classroom.
“It's a lot less intimidating to practice reading in front of a teddy bear instead of a human being,” she said.
Though Lee said most of the kids enjoyed sewing together a teddy bear, some of them expected to keep their creations and had a hard time understanding why they needed to let go.
Some have even almost started crying before trying to give the bears up, she said.
“I say 'Look, probably when you go home, you have a big room of stuffed animals’,” said Lee. “ 'Think about how amazing it's going to be to have another kid that's just like you, make them smile and know that they don't have a teddy bear to go home to'.”
With her last year of high school coming to an end, Lee will be going off to college at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.
Though she will be stepping down as the leader of Stitched Together in the Bay Area, she is leaving it in good hands. A couple of her friends who attend Notre Dame High School in San Jose will be taking over the program.
Meanwhile, once she arrives at Johns Hopkins, Lee said she is hoping to start new chapters of Stitched Together in Baltimore.
“I'm planning my first semester to get my feet wet, see where that need is in the community and volunteer with a bunch of different organizations,” she said. “[Then] check out a few of the elementary schools and then kind of from there see where that goes."