A long journey for Pocket Pals to Turkey

When Deborah Wood saw the heart wrenching image of Mesut Hancer holding the hand of his 15-year-old daughter Irmak, who was killed in the 2023 Turkey earthquake, on the evening news and later in Rotary Down Under (March 2023), she reached out to Rotary to help bring some comfort to children in the region.

Her vision was to get her Pocket Pals – small, knitted teddies – into the hands of as many children as possible.

A presentation to the Rotary Club of Springwood, NSW, by Paramedic Murray Traynor, who was part of Australia’s Disaster and Response Team to Turkey on February 13, reinforced Deborah’s belief that they could do something to make a difference.

Her Pocket Pal concept and pattern was included in the March 2023 District Newsletter and initially caught the attention of Rotary knitters.

PICTURED: Deborah Wood with some of the knitted Pocket Pals destined for the young survivors of the 2023 earthquake that devastated southern and central Turkey and northern and western Syria.

“Soon, I was receiving Pocket Pals knitted by individuals and also members of other clubs: Rotary clubs, The Brown Owl Knitting Group of Springwood, and the Happy Hookers of Lithgow, who contributed crocheted Pals,” said Deborah. “The Wool Inn in Penrith donated yarn and non-knitters generously donated so that yarn and stuffing could be purchased.”

In the end, a total of 1,300 Pocket Pals were knitted, stuffed and sewn. The next step was to find a contact in the earthquake region.

District 9685 Governor Christine Owen put Deborah in touch with the Executive Secretary of District 2430 in Turkey, Ayse Mine Ergun, who had a wonderful solution for distributing the Pocket Pals.

The district had received a global grant for its We Will Survive – Mobile Kindergarten project and was holding a handover ceremony on November 26 in devastated Hatay. Hundreds of children living in container cities would be at the ceremony, which was to run in conjunction with children’s workshops at the Hatay Expo.

It would be the perfect opportunity to distribute the Pocket Pals to the children, with the remainder to be distributed to kids as the mobile kindergarten visited other areas day by day.

The goal was to fly the Pals to Turkey where Volkan Ekmecki, himself an earthquake survivor, would store them until distribution could be arranged.

PICTURED: The image ‘A Father’s Pain’ (World Press Photo Contest Adem Altan/Agence France-Presse), which sparked the idea for Deborah’s Pocket Pals project, was announced as the European Singles regional winner of the 2024 World Press Photo Contest.

With the support of President of the Rotary Club of Springwood Frank Ross and personal contributions from club members, the Pals were packed into six boxes and posted on November 1. The boxes were easy to track through their Australia Post Identification Numbers.

“Asye and I were very hopeful that the Pals would arrive in time for the presentation in Hatay,” said Deborah. “But sadly, this was not to be.

“Our Pals were held up in Australian Customs for a couple of weeks. We then lost track of the boxes. We had no idea when they left Australia or when they arrived in Turkey. We discovered the international couriers had re-assigned different consignment numbers, making tracking the Pals very difficult. Turkish Customs also demanded payment to release the boxes, which had been separated into three lots of two each. But, somehow, they slowly filtered their way through Turkey to their destination.”

The wonderful news of the arrival of all the Pocket Pals was shared in an email from Asye on December 26, followed by photos of children receiving their Pals throughout January and February – a year since the earthquake!

All the while, Deborah never gave up in getting the Pals delivered to children in need of some cheer.

“I would like to thank my husband – Community Director of the Rotary Club of Springwood – for his encouragement and the dedication and energy of Ayse in making this a reality,” said Deborah. “It is our dream realised.”

MAIN PICTURE: After a 12-month journey from Australia to Turkey, the 1,300 Pocket Pals finally found their way into the hands of their intended owners.