Getting through health issues is stressful and scary even for strong and brave adults, let alone little kids. Teddy Bears Anonymous, a 100 per cent volunteer-run Saskatchewan organization, is doing its best to make sure that no kid in the province has to face a sometimes scary hospital experience without a friend next by.
Luke Lawrence, who also volunteers 100 per cent of his time, founded the organization in 2008 after he lost his daughter Erin to a rare form of cancer. He wanted to do something to raise awareness about the disease that brought tragedy into his family, but at the same time, he was thinking of something that would speak to Erin's compassion for children at the hospital where she spent a lot of time.
"When she was taking her treatments, she said, 'Dad, it's terrible.' I said, 'What's terrible, Erin?' She said, 'Children, dad, children have to take chemo.' It was just something I remembered after she passed away," Lawrence recalled.
Erin was almost 21 when she died, and since then for over 11 years Lawrence and like-minded volunteers have been working hard trying to ensure that kids in Saskatchewan hospitals and EMS feel supported through the trying times.
Erin was in the hospital for quite a while, and many people came by to cheer her up and support her, usually bringing either flowers or teddy bears. When she was gone, Lawrence was left with a large variety of brand new stuffed toys.
"I couldn't get rid of them," Lawrence recalled.
He contacted hospitals, but nobody would take those teddy bears because they were considered used, even though nobody has ever played with them.
"I had some luck through some contacts with the Regina EMS at the time, and they said they probably could take those off (my) hands.
"And then he got back to me and he says, 'Hey, Luke there is a huge demand for what you are doing here.'"
Time has proved that there was indeed a significant demand. Since Teddy Bears Anonymous came to being, they have gifted sick children in Saskatchewan hospitals 160,000 teddy bears. Since 2008, they also partnered with over 30 EMSs, including Estevan and other communities around. They started manufacturing their own teddy bears, some of which are sealed and sterile so they could comfort children even in surgery rooms, where parents can't accompany them. This allowed the volunteer organization to partner with Saskatoon's Jim Pattison Children's Hospital, as well as with many other hospitals in Saskatchewan.
The organization is steadily evolving. Lawrence started with the bears that were given to Erin and then continued the mission with the help of donations from people.
"(In the beginning) we were asking (people) to go out and purchase a teddy bear and leave them in a bag that it came in. And we slowly migrated to our own custom bear that we have today. And with COVID, we never saw this one coming, you can't have a better application than a factory sealed sterile bear, because nobody touched it," Lawrence said.
"With hospitals, we give (teddy bears) to the emergency sites for children that are coming in. And then we also give them to pediatric wards in the main hospitals … And they give them to surgical wards there as well."
He added that now both hospitals and kids really like what they do.
At first, teddy bears were all black, but then they realized that there was a demand for variety. Now they offer kids to choose from so-called "three-coloured bears," which are black, white or brown and are made for kids going for surgeries. Children that are in emergency in Regina are gifted with panda bears, and in Saskatoon kids in emergency get koala bears. All EMSs that partner with Teddy Bears Anonymous have three-coloured bears on board. Lawrence added that now they are trying to come up with a new bear every year.
While the main hospitals are located outside of Estevan, when needed local children end up going to bigger centres and also get support from fluffy friends provided by Teddy Bears Anonymous.
Since the very beginning, the organization has been run strictly by volunteers, and support coming from the community is what keeps them going.
To donate to Teddy Bears Anonymous people can go to teddybearsanonymous.ca. They are a registered charity and can issue tax receipts for donations.
"Hundred cent of donations go towards purchasing of teddy bears for sick children," said Lawrence.
He added that running a volunteer organization is "a lot of hard work and you need to find the right people, but they actually tend to find you."
"The team of volunteers that we have they come to us because maybe they have a child that's been affected, that's been gifted, maybe they've lost a child. Everybody has personal reasons, but we have people in the different areas in the province and that's what they do for us. They are very reliable. We have a saying, "You can pay people to do anything, but volunteers are priceless," concluded Lawrence.