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Sock monkey ministry brings comfort to thousands

Beth VanSickle, founder of Sock Monkey Ministries, visits with Shelby Haire, a leukemia patient who received some of the group's handmade toys.
UMNS photos by John Gordon.

By John Gordon*
Aug. 20, 2008 | CHELSEA, Ala. (UMNS)

More than 8,500 sock monkeys have become gifts of comfort.

Beth VanSickle still remembers the comfort she felt as a child when her grandmother gave her a sock monkey.

"It always brought me joy, no matter what I was going through in my life," she says of the stuffed, handcrafted doll.

Now, struggling with cancer, VanSickle is spreading that same comfort to thousands of others, including children with cancer and troops and children in Iraq.

Volunteers for Sock Monkey Ministries, which VanSickle founded in 2005, find it difficult to keep up with the demand. They have made 8,500 sock monkeys in the last two years, and there is still a waiting list.

"When you look at them, you can’t help but smile," she says of whimsical toys.

VanSickle started making sock monkeys in Texas when she was a member of First United Methodist Church in Sugarland. The first were given to the homeless, then she started making them for cancer patients.

"I started having more intense chemotherapy treatment," she recalls about her own illness. "And when I would go to M.D. Anderson (Cancer Center), I would look around and I’d see fear and loneliness and discouragement in many of the faces of the women and children there."

After her family moved to Chelsea, Ala., near Birmingham, they joined Lakeview Pelham First United Methodist Church, where members embraced the ministry.

VanSickle e-mailed about 200 orphanages across the United States offering sock monkey gifts for children. She expected to receive one or two replies, but every orphanage responded with a toy request. Soon, VanSickle recruited several dozen churches and other organizations across the country to help. She calls the volunteers her "monkey posse."

VanSickle examines a stuffed doll.

The ministry has given sock monkeys to cancer patients, children with autism or Down syndrome, soldiers and children in Iraq and Afghanistan, the homeless and anyone else who needs comfort and encouragement.

"I love them," says Shelby Haire, 14, who has Down syndrome and has been treated for leukemia. "I always play with them and talk to them."

Her mother, Christy Haire, joined the effort and makes sock monkeys for other children with Down syndrome. "For Shelby, they’re probably her best friend," she says. "She plays with them every day."

The monkeys are made with thick, red-heeled socks manufactured by Fox River Mills in Iowa. American crafters made sock monkeys with them for generations.

VanSickle adds her own special touches, including funny faces and colorful yarn for hair. Volunteers also place a foam heart inside each doll and pray for the recipient. "Kids nowadays are so used to the high-tech toys," she says. "But you get a sock monkey and it’s something that’s nostalgic and vintage. This is a toy that will never get old."

Each monkey takes at least three hours to make and is truly a labor of love.

"Miss Beth has touched everybody’s lives," says Donna Corbin, a volunteer with VanSickle's church. "If you’re lonely, you get a sock monkey. If you’re sick, you get a sock monkey."

Jim Stedman, another volunteer, calls the gifts a symbol of hope. "It puts smiles on people’s faces who seem like they have no hope. It’s something to hold on to," he says.

VanSickle says her own battle with cancer led her to start the ministry.

Volunteers stitch sock monkeys at Lakeview Pelham First United Methodist Church in Pelham, Ala.

"It just gives me a renewed sense of purpose," she says. "Every day when I wake up, if I’m feeling down or in pain, all I have to do is think about a monkey and think about the recipient."

She wants the ministry to continue, even after she is gone.

"None of us live forever and when you’re diagnosed with a terminal condition, you know that your life is limited. We can do something with the time that you’re given, or not. And it’s a true blessing for me, personally, knowing that I’m leaving this world a better place than when I came in."

To learn more about Sock Monkey Ministries, visit www.sockmonekyministry.com. 

*Gordon is a freelance producer and writer based in Marshall, Texas.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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