Teddies for Tots founder Sharon Hildebrand with three teddy bears all cleaned, dressed and ready for hugs.
Everyone needs something to hold onto when life becomes tough to handle. Especially for children who are hurt, sick or in traumatic situations, something as simple as a teddy bear can bring huge comfort.
This is where Teddies for Tots comes in.
The organization was started by Sharon Hildebrand, following her own painful journey, when her mother, Tina Klassen of Gretna, lost her lengthy battle with cancer, Hildebrand says she needed something to hold onto - and some way to reach out to others to help heal her own aching heart.
In 2015, she began collecting new or used teddy bears, dressing them in baby clothes, and giving them to hospitals.
At first, they were mainly intended for children struggling with cancer, as her mother had, but soon, the bears also found their way into the arms of children at pregnancy crisis centres and women’s shelters. “I’ve brought them to hospitals in Altona, Winkler and Morden, Carman, St. Pierre, Portage, Steinbach and Children’s Hospital in Winnipeg.”
They also go to diagnostic labs and public health offices, fire departments and ambulances, and have been distributed at Teddy Bear picnics. There’s no questioning the demand. The Winnipeg Ambulance Service uses as many of Hildebrand’s teddies as she can supply. “They need about 2,000 a year,” she says.
So far, she’s collected around 2,900 bears, and delivered about 2,500. But where does one find this many stuffed animals, and not feel like you’re buying a zoo?
She says local charities like MCC stores are a treasure trove, and allow her to buy bears at a fraction of full retail prices. “It’s also a great way to support another worthy cause,” she says.
All of Hildebrand’s teddies are prepared with tender loving care. First, she makes sure every bear is carefully washed in bleach for 30 minutes, and dried for two hours, making them completely clean and safe. Then she mends them, if needed, and dresses each bear, creating a unique character.
But it all adds up, and Hildebrand wants to make sure no hurting child goes without a teddy.
She has put out an appeal for donations. “I think everybody has a few stuffed animals whose owners have grown out of them, and need to be loved again,” she says.
Teddies can be 12 to 24 inches tall, new or used. “I’m also taking donations of laundry detergent and bleach, baby clothes (3 to 12 months). Little T-shirts with sayings on them, and little hats and caps are especially cute.”
The Miami Fire Department recently donated around 200 stuffed animals to Teddies for Tots. Fire Chief Ray Frost presented the teddy bear haul to Hildebrand on May 3. Frost’s son, who is also a firefighter, heard about Teddies for Tots at the local credit union and shared the information with his dad, who thought it was a neat idea.
Then Frost’s wife posted a call for stuffed animals on Facebook on behalf of the Miami Fire Department, and the response was immediate. The largest contribution came from a woman moving out of the Altamont area, who worked for Pet Smart. She knew her company had run a teddy bear campaign in 2017, and asked her boss to donate the extra toys to be turned into Teddies for Tots.
Frost said the initiative is great idea. “I think it’s a great thing that Sharon’s doing,” he said. “To even think of it is huge.”
The Miami Fire Department was more than happy to get involved. Having experience on the front lines of local emergency situations has given Frost even more appreciation for Hildebrand’s initiative. “It’s a great idea to provide these for first response units, fire trucks, ambulances in any accident scene or traumatic incident,” he said. “It’s quite comforting, I think, and not just for children.”
Some of Hildebrand’s bears are now passengers on Miami fire trucks, ready to be given out as needed.
Frost said the stuffed animals can help make everyone feel a little better in tough situations.
“It gives children and the odd adult something else to focus on, and to hang on to. Something tangible to hold on to is huge,” he said. “And let’s face it, for any of us that do this, if you can present one of these to a child and see a smile on their face, it kind of makes everybody feel better.”
Hildebrand says there are all kinds of ways you can support Teddies for Tots. “You can donate bears, baby clothes, bleach or laundry detergent directly to me by calling 204-362-3713 or 204-325-8398. Mr. Mike’s Steakhouse in Winkler also has a Teddies for Tots drop-off box where you can bring your bears.”
Financial donations can be made at any Access Credit Union, under “Teddies for Tots”.
“To be able to help in some small way to bring comfort to a child brings me comfort. I know my mom would be proud.”
-With files from Emily Distefano