Bringing comfort to children in Hurricane Ian

GCU graduate student Mimi Hymel is sending stuffed animals to children affected by Hurricane Ian.

GCU grad student, Hurricane Katrina survivor sending children stuffed animals

Grand Canyon University graduate student Mimi Hymel was just 3 years old when Hurricane Katrina devastated her hometown of Kenner, Louisiana, a suburb of New Orleans.

The Category 5 storm, known for its raging floodwaters after the system of levees and flood walls failed, damaged an estimated 2,800 homes in Kenner, including Hymel’s family home.

More than 1,800 people died in Hurricane Katrina, which caused more than $100 billion of damage and displaced more than 1 million people.

Like everyone in the storm’s path, Hymel and her family had precious little time to evacuate. While her doctor father stayed behind, the rest of her family grabbed what they could. In the chaos, her favorite teddy bear, “Cuddles,” who went with her everywhere, was left behind.

She has held on to that childhood memory 17 years after Katrina, and it’s what motivated her in 2020 to start the organization Comfort Bears in a Catastrophe, which gifts stuffed animals and cards to children impacted by natural disasters.

Hymel, a Hurricane Katrina survivor, said children are particularly vulnerable to natural disasters, with many exhibiting post-traumatic stress symptoms.

As Hurricane Ian barrels through Florida, knocking out power and water and stranding residents, Comfort Bears in a Catastrophe is stepping up to support children in the area. A donation drive will run through Oct. 5.

“We have partners locally in the area who will be working with us to ensure as many children as possible will receive a Comfort Bear,” said Hymel, 20, who is the national press secretary for Voters for Tomorrow, which encourages young voters to register and vote. She also is working on her master’s of public administration at GCU in government and policy.

Hymel remembers how, during Hurricane Katrina, her family received help from so many disaster-relief organizations.

“But most organizations just provided essentials,” she said of the donations of food, water, clothing and the like.

As a child in a disaster, you don't really realize "you'll never go back home. ... You're just really missing those comfort items."

Mimi Hymel, GCU graduate student and founder of Comfort Bears in a Catastrophe

But as a child in a disaster, she didn’t quite understand everything that was happening to her family. She didn’t really realize the full extent of her family losing their house or that “you’ll never go back home,” she said.

What she did know: “You’re just really missing those comfort items.”

She remembers not being able to sleep for weeks at that time without Cuddles, though her family was able to eventually replace her beloved teddy bear.

According to the Society for Research in Child Development, children younger than 18 are particularly vulnerable when exposed to natural disasters. As many as 50% of children report post-traumatic stress symptoms after experiencing a disaster, such as difficulty sleeping or concentrating. They experience depression symptoms and can exhibit chronic mental health symptoms even four years after the event, not to mention an increased rate of absenteeism in school.

With Comfort Bears in a Catastrophe, “We’re really trying to fill that gap for children,” she said.

Each stuffed animal comes with a note of encouragement personally handwritten by volunteers.

Each bear is sent with notes of encouragement handwritten by volunteers.

Since Hymel founded the organization, 650 bears and other stuffed animals have been sent to children all over the country, from children in Arizona after wildfire disasters, to youth in California, Nevada, Florida and her home state of Louisiana.

After Katrina, Hymel and her family evacuated from her hometown and settled in El Paso, Texas.

She came to Phoenix — where other members of her family have ended up, too — to attend Arizona State University for her undergraduate studies before starting her master’s studies at GCU. She wants to continue in her work as a press secretary in the government sector.

But for now, she’s focused on what’s unfolding on Florida’s Gulf Coast.

The disaster brings to mind a recent donation of stuffed animals from her organization to the hospital where she was born, Ochsner Health in Kenner.

That moment was a full-circle moment for her, knowing she was once one of those scared children coming out of a disaster and now is someone who can help children going through the same thing she did.

It’s moments like those that have encouraged her in the past couple of years. To be able to meet some of those children, “It has been really awesome.”

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To donate or volunteer: www.comfortbearsinacatastrophe.org

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Related content:

GCU News: Joplin tornado survivor aided by GCU now a student

GCU News: GCU students rush to join hurricane relief efforts

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