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March 27, 2008   Email to Friend 

Monkeys On A Mission
Debra Davis

Beth VanSickle, left, and her son Ryan round up monkeys ready for shipment.

One Shelby County woman is proof that a random act of kindness is returned to the giver 10 fold. In her own way, Beth VanSickle is helping change the world -- one sock monkey at a time.

Beth said Sock Monkey Ministries is a mission idea that came to her during one of her lowest points in life.

"It was 2005, and I was basically bedridden following cancer surgery and chemotherapy," said the energetic 42-year-old. "I admit I was sort of feeling sorry for myself and was determined to find a way to make myself snap out of it. I remembered a sock monkey that my grandmother had made for me as a child, and it brought a smile to my face. I thought 'what a wonderful way to help people feel better - I could make 10 sock monkeys and give them to homeless children.' It immediately made me feel better, and I knew that's what God wanted me to do."

Beth and her husband Randy, along with their two sons, Ryan and Wesley, were living in Sugarland, Texas at the time. When the children at their church heard what Beth was doing, they joined in to help. What started as 10 monkeys multiplied like loaves and fishes.

To date, Sock Monkey Ministries has provided more than 6,500 of the stuffed animals to orphans and disadvantaged children in more than 29 states. It has reached beyond the United States to provide sock monkeys to orphans in Russia, Bosnia, Latvia, Guatemala, Honduras, Argentina, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The ministry has spread beyond the walls of the church and involved more than 500 children at Colony Bend Elementary School in Texas; 400 students from Chelsea; sororities and fraternities at Texas State University; numerous elderly persons in nursing homes, and homebound volunteers in Texas, Alabama and Ohio.

The ministry also has spread to members of other churches and faiths. Sock Monkey Ministries is now in Ohio, Colorado, Texas, Alabama, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Missouri, Georgia, Indiana, Maryland and Kansas.

"We don't push religion on anyone, but we want them to know that someone cares about them," Beth said. "What better example of a Christian life than to perform a random act of kindness?"

In January 2006, Randy took a new job, and the VanSickles moved from Texas to Chelsea, Ala., where the ministry has spread to various churches, communities and organizations. The VanSickles new church home, Lakeview Pelham First United Methodist Church, embraced Sock Monkey Ministries and each Wednesday church members, as well as other volunteers, meet there to cut, sew, stuff and love sock monkeys.

"There's just something about a sock monkey that brings comfort to children and adults alike," Beth said. "They just make you smile and feel good. But there's another side to our monkeys and our ministry, and that's the joy you receive when your act of kindness impacts someone -- maybe someone you don't even know.

"We have volunteers who are homebound and didn't think they had anything left to give. But they love this project because it gives them a purpose, and they're helping people at the same time. We've had volunteers as young as 3 and as old as 97." One volunteer, 88-year-old Juanita Smoyer, is a church member who can turn a sock monkey inside out in no time. She's been volunteering there for about a year.

"It gives me something to do, and I can do it while I watch TV at home, too," she said. "Anyone can volunteer. You don't have to be able to sew or cut. My eyes aren't as good as they used to be, but I can turn the socks that have been sewn and cut so they can be stuffed."

It's a regular assembly line at the Lakeview Pelham United Methodist Church on Wednesdays. Smoyer's daughter, Sharon McPeters, also is a volunteer. She can draw the seam lines on the socks with a marker without using a pattern. It takes two socks to make a monkey, and only red-toe cotton socks made by Fox River Mills in Osage, Iowa are used. The pattern is drawn on the socks, then machine-sewn. The seams are cut, and the fabric is turned inside out. The monkey is stuffed, then its arms, ears, legs and tail are sewn into place by hand. Finally, its individual personality takes shape as its eyes, mouth and hair are added. During the stuffing, a special foam heart is placed inside each monkey. A prayer has been said for each heart, hoping it brings comfort to its new owner.

"We have photos from all over the world where monkeys have been given to children and adults," Beth said. "We know our ministry is working - you can see it in their smiles." Sock monkeys from the ministry aren't for sale, but are simply given away to those in need of comfort. Information about requesting a monkey is on the ministry's Web site at www.SockMonkeyMinistry.com.

The ministry operates strictly through donations, which are tax deductible to the 501(c)(3) charity. Individuals or groups can sponsor monkeys for $20 each, and information on sponsorship is available on the ministry Web site as well.

Although Beth continues her battle with cancer, her passion and desire to serve others isn't slowing her down. Sock Monkey Ministries continues to gain momentum.

"We've got monkeys to make," she shouts enthusiastically to the volunteers, "think of all those smiles waiting out there."




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