Wrapped in Love and a Bear Hug: Celebrating an Un-bear-ably Precious Cornerstone of the Pioneers Network

Teddy bears are synonymous with childhood. For many kids, they are soft, cuddly friends to play and sleep with – or simply shower with hugs and kisses. But to other children who have suffered a traumatic event or injury, a teddy bear can be a lifeline of emotional support.

Over the last 30 years, the “Hug-A-Bear” program has been an important cornerstone of the Pioneers volunteer network. Just about every chapter across the country dedicates resources to crafting teddy bears for children who are facing some sort of trauma, such as a medical emergency, domestic violence, house fire or hospitalization. After the Hug-A-Bears are sewn and stuffed to strict standards, Pioneers then distribute the bears to emergency responders, woman’s shelters, and hospitals to have on hand when needed.

Finally, these fluffy bears are welcomed into the arms of young children to help provide calm and comfort during an emotional storm. Over the years, many emergency responders have shared how, by simply snuggling with the bears, scared kids are better able to communicate with them in critical situations. In many cases, the bears remain a source of emotional support long after the traumatic event has passed.

Here are some of the best stories we have collected from various chapters about some “bear” sightings.

In Minnesota, Boys Love Bears

In March 2014, Declan, then just two years old, was rushed to a Hennepin County (Minnesota) hospital via ambulance with a severe case of pneumonia. While in the ambulance, he was given a Hug-A-Bear. It was love at first sight – according to his mom, Renae, he hasn’t let go of that bear, named Ambulance, since that day!

Renae, seeing the comfort the bear brought her son while he recovered, used the tag on the bear to track down local Pioneers Hug-A-Bear chairperson Sally Bolster to see how she could help. Renae then came to a Minnesota Metro chapter meeting to help stuff and finish bears. She left with a bear pattern and a promise to sew bears at home and bring them back to be stuffed. Of course, she also left with another Hug-A-Bear for Declan’s twin brother, Harlan!

Fast forward a few years and, in May 2017, Renae – along with the twins and their bears – came back to deliver the bears Renae had sewn. Even the boys’ Grandpa got involved and knitted about a dozen ties for the bears! Renae and the boys helped the chapter create Hug-A-Bears for a few months until other obligations prevented them from attending the chapter’s monthly meetings. The boys left with a promise to take loving care of their bears forever.

The Minnesota Metro chapter has maintained a very robust Hug-A-Bear program since the bears were first conceptualized in the late 1970s. The group still meets monthly and usually makes around 50 to75 bears each month. The bears are donated to two ambulance services as well as police departments and women’s crisis centers in the Twin Cities area.

In Arizona, Bear Hugs Abound

In Nogales, Arizona, a house fire broke out early one morning when blind grandmother was trying to cook breakfast for her young grandchildren. One of the children, a 2nd grader, woke up, saw the flames and knew exactly what to do – because a Tucson firefighter had visited her school just the week before and discussed fire safety. She immediately woke everyone else in the house up, got them outside, and called 911! The Nogales fire department responded and quickly put out the fire. The firefighters praised the young girl for her quick thinking and action and rewarded her with a Hug-A-Bear sewn by the Tucson Pioneers chapter.

The following stories were shared by the Pioneers Southern Arizona combined chapter:

  • A Pioneers’ grandson, who works for an ambulance company, once called her asking, “Where can I get some of those bears?” He told her they really help calm children dealing with trauma so first responders can better communicate with them.
  • The chapter once went through 150 Hug-A-Bears in one week! The local victim services agency was dealing with busloads of young children who had arrived from Mexico without their parents. The children were thrilled to have the soft bears to hug until they could be reunited with family.

In Florida, Bears Travel Far and Wide

The Pioneers Florida Everglades chapter has been creating Hug-A-Bears since 1993. The group has sewn and stuffed thousands of bears and shared the cuddly creatures with police and fire departments, children's hospitals, and homeless shelters throughout southern Florida.

The group also donates 500 bears each year to University of Miami medical students to take on missions to Nicaragua. Ellen Armstrong, Hug-A-Bear chairperson, notes, “The students travel to Nicaragua to help children who do not have access to medical treatment. A bear is given to each child to comfort them. And, when these underprivileged kids receive a handmade bear, they think it is Christmas!”

This partnership has been going on for over 10 years and the group absolutely loves getting pictures and feedback from the medical students about the missions each year.

In the Florida panhandle, eleven dedicated members of the Pioneers Pensacola chapter meet twice a month to craft Hug-A-Bears (25 at each meeting) to donate to local hospitals, fire stations and children’s shelters. The thank-you cards the group receives about how happy the children are with their new furry friends makes all the time and effort worthwhile!

In Nashville, Bears Make a Big Impact

Teddy bears that are lovingly hand-sewn in Nashville are having a significant impact on thousands of middle Tennessee children, helping them cope with tough situations.

Volunteers with the Pioneers Nashville chapter have fashioned over 10,000 bears in the last 20 years! Volunteers meet every month to sew and stuff the bears for distribution to police and fire departments. In May 2018, the group donated 200 Hug-A-Bears to the Williamson County Sheriff's Office.

"You see the patrolmen go to the car and take this bear out of the patrol car and hand it to a child and the child goes, 'Aw,' and it's so nice that you've done something, you've done this and made this happen for this child," said Gaye Hughes with the Nashville Pioneers.

Ultimately, it is the Pioneers who dedicate their time and resources to crafting these unique bears who reap the greatest reward – the knowledge that they have given a gift of love and a “bear hug” to a child in need.