Bears for Kids

To Donate to the Bears for Kids Program at Macomb Facility

Special Activities Director and NLA Liason Maria Visconti
Phone Macomb Facility : 586-749-4900

NLA Chapter 1012 Bears for Kids Program at Macomb Correctional Facility

In March 2004, Tilmon Barnett’s cellmate handed him a flyer about a Benefit Dinner for Tyler & Faith Heinze, the children of Liz and Tim Heinze who resided in Elsie Michigan with their other two children. On January 28, 2003, Tyler had been diagnosed with Niemann-Pick Disease Type C, an extremely rare genetic disorder that is fatal. On January 21, 2004, Faith was also diagnosed with Niemann-Pick Disease Type C.

Because Barnett did leather work as his hobby, his cellmate’s mother asked if he would be interested in making a leather Bible cover that could be raffled off for the Heinze’s Benefit Dinner. Without hesitation, Barnett agreed to make the Bible cover. Instead of donating it himself, Barnett gave the Bible cover to his cellmate to donate in his name. Unbeknownst to his cellmate, Barnett decided he would also make a large clock with a unicorn rearing up in front of a waterfall and rainbow as a donation to the Heinze family.

As he was painting the clock, several inmates asked if they could buy the clock. Of course, his answer was “No”, explaining to them he was making it as a donation to the Heinze family for their two children who were battling a rare fatal disorder. Thirteen other inmates decided they wanted to do something to also help the Heinze family.

After collecting all the items that would be donated, Barnett realized that he would need special permission to send them out because he had not made all of them. The rule was he was only allowed to send out the hobby craft items he made. Barnett spoke to the Deputy Warden of the Macomb Correctional Facility, showed her the flyer, and asked her for her permission to send the items to help the Heinze family. The Deputy Warden said she had no problem with it, but had one question, “Why?” Barnett’s answer was simple, “I’m still human.”

A few days later, the Deputy Warden asked Barnett if he knew how to make stuffed animals. Barnett told her he did know how to make them. Barnett asked why she would ask. The Deputy Warden said that on her way home from work she came across a car accident. The driver had to be taken to the hospital immediately, leaving two small children crying hysterically. The Deputy Warden said she sat with the children trying to comfort them. She could not help thinking if the EMS or police had some stuffed animals to give the children, it might ease their fears. Then she thought about Barnett and the other inmates donating to help the Heinze family, could they also make stuffed animals.

From that conversation, the Deputy Warden and Barnett thought about how prisoners could make stuffed animals at Macomb. Unfortunately, Barnett explained to her it would be extremely difficult to make stuffed animals now because the MDOC (Michigan Department of Corrections) took inmates’ personal sewing machines a few years prior. Fortunately, the Deputy Warden would authorize sewing machines to be purchased for the Macomb hobby craft program with the agreement Barnett, along with a few prisoners from the National Lifers of America, Inc. (NLA) Local Chapter 1012, would purchase some materials to start making stuffed animals on the weekend to be donated to EMS or the police for situations as the Deputy Warden experienced with the car crash and two upset children.

This was the birth of the “Bears for Kids” program at the Macomb Correctional Facility. On August 16, 2004, the prisoners of the NLA Local Chapter 1012 donated 25 stuffed animals to the Richmond Lenox Emergency Medical Service. From that point in time, people from everywhere were contacting the prison asking if the NLA would make stuffed animals for their department or organization. Fortunately, the prisoners of the NLA answered the call making thousands of stuffed animals for donation.

On August 8, 2005, The Detroit News published a story about the men of the NLA making stuffed animals and donating them to “neglected, abused Metro children.” An article was even written about the program in Arizona, where an Arizona department of corrections special activities director wanted Barnett to assist him in starting the program at his facility. Barnett sent stuffed animal patterns and information on what they needed and how to run the program.

With so many requests for stuffed animals coming in and with the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the men of the NLA went from working weekends only to working 7 days a week from 7:30 AM to 9:00 PM. They also started making belts, purses, backpacks, and tote bags. There was a need and the men of the NLA rose to the challenge.

With all the publicity the program received and with all the good the men were doing, the vendors where they purchased their materials decided they wanted to help so they donated thousands of dollars’ worth of material to the program. Donations did not stop there; members of the public were also contacting the facility asking how they can donate materials to the program. One very special lady whose parents had owned a stuffed animal factory donated a truck load of material to help the men continue their good deed of helping those in need.

Since the start of the NLA’s “Bears for Kids” program at the Macomb Correctional Facility, Barnett has started or assisted in starting this program at 6 other prisons, the latest being the Muskegon Correctional Facility where he was the president of NLA Local Chapter 1023. There Barnett taught prisoners to make not only stuffed animals but also quilts, rugs, hats, and scarfs. During the COVID 19 pandemic they even made masks.

Nineteen years later after starting the “Bears for Kids” program at the Macomb facility, Barnett returned to and became vice president of Chapter 1012 making a full circle returning to the first “Bears for Kids” program he started in 2004. He is again leading and teaching a new group of NLA men to give to those in need through making stuffed animals, quilts, hats, gloves, and scarfs.

SINCE COVID the only facility currently running an active Bear for Kids program is Macomb Correctional Facility.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *