Stuffed animals are cute and cuddly friends that can brighten any child’s day. But what do you do when the plush toys begin to pile up–unused–in the corner of your child’s bedroom? Holy Spirit Parish’s Pat Hilpert has an answer for you: donate them to her.
For more than a decade, Pat has made it her mission to take unwanted stuffed animals, and, after a good cleaning, give them a new lease on life. At 86 years old, Pat could be sitting back, enjoying her well-deserved retirement. Instead, she spends about 22 hours a week on this amazing outreach project and has repurposed more than 19,000 toys and books, mainly for children in need. “I like to keep busy,” Pat says with a laugh. “If I can do things to help others, why wouldn’t I want to do so?”
Keeping busy and helping others has been at the forefront of Pat’s entire life. She grew up on a working ranch in Butte, Mont. Along with her parents, she and her three older sisters did most of the ranch work. “It was shortly after World War II and there were few men available to work the ranch,” Pat explains. “So, my sisters and I were happy to pitch in.”
Pat says she was blessed with wonderful parents who modeled a faith-filled life and a strong work ethic. “My mother was a nurse in World War I and cared for the sick during the Arkansas flu epidemic in 1918. My dad was a cook in the Army in France.”
Her mother always spoke about the joy she experienced from her nursing profession, so Pat decided to pursue the same career path. “My nursing school had all female students and there was an engineering school nearby with all male students,” Pat remembers. “A lot of us girls dated the boys in the engineering school. Out of 29 nursing students, 11 married engineers. And I was one of them!”
Pat and her husband, Frederick, married in January of 1955, and their sons Mark and Gene soon completed their family. Pat returned to nursing in 1959, a profession she enjoyed for the next 50 years. But life for the Hilpert family was quite nomadic in the early years, moving 14 times in 12 years. “Frederick was a geologist and went back to school at the age of 40 to get his PhD,” Pat says. “He got a teaching job at UW-Stevens Point and we moved here in 1970. We settled down and I have been here ever since.”
Pat was a nurse at St. Michael’s Hospital in Stevens Point for more than 30 years. She enjoyed being a float nurse for 12 years, and then moved on to a supervisor position for the remaining years. “I loved nursing, especially at St. Michael’s,” Pat says fondly. “Those were really good years. I was blessed to work there and help people during their time of need.”
Frederick passed away in October of 2008, and by that time, Pat had retired from St. Michael’s. “I didn’t have anything to do, so one day I decided it was time to clean out the boys’ bedrooms,” Pat says. She found many toys that were still in good condition. “I didn’t want to just throw them out. All they needed was a little cleaning,” she says. “I decided to put the stuffed animals in the washing machine with a lot of soap. If they came out good, that was fine; if not, it wouldn’t be a loss.” To her surprise, the animals came out looking like new. She took them to Operation Bootstrap, a nearby charitable organization for the underserved. “They mainly provide food, with some clothes and housewares, too, but they didn’t have toys,” Pat says. They were thrilled with Pat’s donation of plush critters, and her new ministry was born.
“It kind of mushroomed,” Pat says with a laugh. “My first donation went over so well, that pretty soon I was getting requests from church carnivals and schools for stuffed animals.” She decided to match up a book along with a stuffed animal. “Reading is so important,” she says. “If a child gets a toy and a book, then the parents will be more likely to spend time with them reading.”
Pat established a regular process for ensuring the toys are fit for new little hands to hold them. “Whenever I get a donation, I go through the animals and set aside those that need repair. The others go through the washing machine with a good cup of soap, and then into the dryer,” she says. “After that, in the summer, I hang them on my lines outside for a couple of days to get thoroughly dry. It’s a sight to see—they really look quite ridiculous hanging out there!” she laughs. In the wintertime, the freshly cleaned critters spend some time drying by Pat’s wood-burning stove.
Sometimes, Pat can spend two or three days in a row doing nothing but mending stuffed animals that need a little extra attention. “It’s my responsibility to make sure the toy is safe for the child,” she says. She is grateful for the generosity of those who keep her well-stocked in animals and books. “I am so blessed. I have so many friends and people in the community who pitch in, going to rummage sales to look for toys for me,” Pat says. As word has gotten out about her ministry, she has received donations from all over the country. “Once a year, two ladies from Milwaukee drive to my house to drop off a carload of books and toys.”
Pat says it is rewarding to know that each child gets a lift from the stuffed animal and book they receive. But she knows that sometimes it’s more than just getting a new toy. “Parents can have more money to buy food for the family if they don’t have to buy toys, too. That’s important.”
It warms Pat’s heart to know the stuffed animals are getting a new life with children who truly appreciate them. “Teachers will take pictures of their students holding the toys,” she says. “They’ll write me letters and the children will sign their names. I have a couple of wall hangings in my house filled with thank you notes. Looking at them makes me smile.”
With support from her family and the community, Pat plans to continue her outreach ministry into the foreseeable future. “God has been good to me. I’m a very satisfied person,” she says. “I have been so fortunate. I’ve had a lot of love given to me over the years. I have to give back.”
Story by Mary Ellen Bliss
Photography by Robert Rogers
Published November 2020 Catholic Life Issue