How an accidental teacher changed a community, one handmade toy at a time.

By Eliana Osborn

Twelve years ago, if you had asked Ana Laura Batres whether she wanted to be a teacher, the aspiring DEA agent would have laughed. But to everyone’s surprise, her temporary assignment at Castle Dome Middle School in Yuma, AZ, turned into a new career. “I think I have my real calling,” she told her shocked family.

A few years later, Ana Laura took over the life skills class (a modern spin on home economics) after her principal noticed how well she incorporated food into her Spanish classes’ culture lessons. “I felt born for this job. It refreshed me and made me feel complete,” she says. But Ana Laura’s life skills class goes far beyond the basics of cooking and sewing. Her students also work on a project that has become legendary in the school and the community: making stuffed sock monkeys for abused youth.

A Serious Need

In Yuma, the victim services center Amberly’s Place helps children, women and seniors who have been assaulted or abused. The center ensures a comfortable, welcoming environment where law enforcement and crisis response advocates can meet with victims and their families. It also provides mandated teacher training for spotting and reporting abuse, which is how the organization first appeared on Ana Laura’s radar.

Hearing stories about abuse in her community was chilling. One of her own high school classmates went missing during Ana Laura’s senior year, a loss she will never forget. “I started thinking—what can I have my kids do, for them to be aware?” she remembers. That’s when the idea of making stuffed monkeys came to her—to turn a sweet, kid-oriented object into both a lesson for her children and a comfort for those in truly trying circumstances.

A Stitch in Time

The project started in 2011, with students bringing in fabric they selected themselves and sewing each animal entirely by hand. To this day, their enthusiasm is infectious. Kids come up to Ana Laura in the hallways, asking when the project is going to start. “At first they think it seems so difficult, but once we start they get very excited to make that monkey and know where it’s going,” Ana Laura says.

Sewing usually requires an entire semester, but the kids happily stick with it. Each year Diane Umphress, the executive director of Amberly’s Place, comes at the end of the term to collect the monkeys and talk to the students. “For the children who come through Amberly’s, the monkeys send a very powerful message: Your peers care about you and support you,” Umphress tells the students. Removing some of the stigma surrounding abuse can make victims feel safer about getting help. “Awareness is our only key to prevention,” says Umphress.

The project often comes full circle. Ana Laura once had a student pull her aside after class. “ ‘Mrs. Batres, I just want to thank you from the bottom of my heart,’ she said. She told me that her sister was taken to Amberly’s Place after being abducted. When she came home, she had a sock monkey,” Ana Laura recalls. “In that moment my student learned that we’re making a difference. We’re touching lives with love.”

Changing Lives

Life skills is now the most popular elective on campus, with full classes every semester. Ana Laura was even able to buy 15 new sewing machines for her classes (much less hand-stitching!) with a $5,000 grant from the Arizona Diamondbacks. Her students have sewn more than 200 monkeys for the kids at Amberly’s Place, and they’re taking on new projects, like military care packages and bucket hats for cancer patients.

At the end of the day, Ana Laura sees what she does as simply the greatest job ever. “Sometimes I’m like, ‘Really, I’m getting paid to have fun with the kids and cook and sew monkeys?’ ’’ The work supporting Amberly’s Place is just part of her role as a teacher. “Children should come first, because they are going to be in charge of our community tomorrow,” says Ana Laura. “We need to teach them values as well as what’s in the textbook.”

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