PHOENIX, Ariz. — An Arizona State University student who experienced Hurricane Katrina as a child began a nonprofit to help provide comfort bears for children in disasters.
“I still feel those emotions and I still feel those impacts every day,” said Mimi Hymel.
Hymel was only 3 years old when Hurricane Katrina broke through the levees in 2005. Now an ASU senior, she says the storm left a lasting impression now guiding her newly found mission.
“It was really scary. The thought of being a child and not knowing if my dad would come home ever because the cell lines were cut, we couldn’t reach him for weeks,” said Hymel.
While she fled the storm with her mother and sister, her father stayed behind as the CFO of a local hospital. When they finally returned, like nearly everything else, their New Orleans home was destroyed.
“All the walls were gutted, all of our furniture was ruined, mildew everywhere. We came home and had absolutely nothing left,” said Hymel.
Hymel says she also lost her beloved teddy bear, something she was known to have everywhere she went. She lost it at a time when she needed it most.
“Having to go through that storm sort of feeling isolated and alone without that best friend was really hard, and I think a lot of children talk to their teddy bears as a friend and they confide in them, so it not only gives them a safe judgment-free space to be able to process that trauma, but it also helps adults realize how they’re processing that trauma,” said Hymel.
That’s why she created a nonprofit called Comfort Bears in a Catastrophe.
“A lot of the messages say, 'It will be OK. Things will get better. You are safe,'” said Hymel as she wrote out a card to attach to a gray teddy bear at her north Phoenix home.
Each bear comes with a handwritten note and hundreds of them have now found their way into the hands and hearts of children across the nation, from the wildfires in Northern California to the Seaside condo collapse in Florida.
As rescue operations begin in Louisiana following Hurricane Ida, Hymel’s operations are at full steam as well.
“We’re doing a donation drive right now through Sept. 9, and all those bears will be donated to Hurricane Ida,” said Hymel.
Extreme uncertainty about what New Orleans families face in the days ahead remains for millions now impacted. But there’s no doubt when those children do return home, hundreds of Hymel’s teddy bears will be waiting.
“If just one child can benefit from that and can have a comfort bear that they can call a friend to be able to go on and overcome that, I think that’s a job well done,” said Hymel.
Click here to donate to Comfort Bears in a Catastrophe.
This story was originally published by Cameron Polom at KNXV.