By Danita Ogandaga
These days, everyone needs a big bear hug. This is the gift and message of Betty Jo Nash and the volunteers of the Bear Hugs Program, who make stuffed bears to give to the pediatric patients of area hospitals, including Piedmont Fayette, Southern Regional, and Piedmont Fayette Minor Emergency. Their stuffed bears, handed out free of charge to children at the hospital, provide comfort at a time that, for many little ones, is a scary — if not downright terrifying — experience.
Psychological studies have shown the calming effect that stuffed animals can have on a child who is in a stressful or traumatic situation, such as getting an x-ray or breathing treatment for the first time in the while in the emergency room. “It’s a wonderful thing to be able to produce a bear that a doctor or a nurse could give to a child who is scared. It takes attention off of their health problem and refocuses them on loving and hugging the bear,” says Betty Jo.
Although the children are the primary beneficiaries of the Bear Hugs Program, bears are also given to seniors in need of comfort, and also tangentially benefit relieved parents, caretakers, and medical professionals. “The bears have added a little sunshine in a place the children would prefer not to be,” explains Piedmont Fayette Hospital’s Auxiliary Services Coordinator Kimberly Fair. “The bears make a child feel better emotionally during a time they are hurting physically.”
Betty Jo’s idea for the Bear Hugs Program began following a trip to a family wedding in Florida, eventually resulting in the adoption of the program through her church, Fayetteville Church of Christ. After she’d galvanized the ladies of her church to join her efforts, others wanted to join group; soon, her bear producing “workdays” turned into community fellowships, brin8ging grandmothers, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, moms, and dads together with the sole purpose of making bears. “Betty Jo made it really easy for any member of the church and surrounding community to be a part of the program,” says Fayetteville Church of Christ’s Office Manager Susie Graham. One of the first volunteers of the program, Annette Benefield, whose disability prevents her mobility, participates fully in the production of each bear — stuffing, sewing, painting, and cutting. “I may not be able to do what others do,” Annette says, “but making bears is my mission to the Lord.”
Since the inception of the program in April 2000, Betty Jo has worked well over 50 hours a week on the production of the bears. And, in addition to implementing the program in Fayette, Betty Jo and her husband have helped bring the Bear Hugs Program to places such as Texas, Oklahoma, Scotland, New Zealand, and even the island of Fiji while on mission trips. “When you’re passionate about something, you want to share that passion with others,” explains Betty Jo.
The process of making the bears is a tedious and methodical one, starting with a flat sheet of ironed fabric. Once the pattern of the bear is cut out, it’s sewn together and stuffed, and then the eyes, nose, and heart are drawn by hand on each one. The paint is then sealed to prevent exposure to toxic chemicals, and a color-coordinated bow is sewn on its neck. For the finishing touch, the label on each of the bears is double stitched and inscribed with the simple statement, “Made with love.” The bears are then sorted into bags for boys, girls, and seniors and taken to various departments within the hospital and assisted living centers.
When the program first began, the cost to produce each bear was approximately $0.63, but due to the economic shift over the past years, the production cost has increased to $2.50. Despite the cost increase, though, there is no sign of the program slowing down. Thanks to the generous support of her church, Fayetteville Church of Christ, sponsorship from Wal-Mart, and the donations from volunteers, the Bear Hugs Program is continuing to make the difference in the lives of children and seniors.
The partnership between the Bear Hugs Program and Piedmont Fayette Hospital has been a long standing and fruitful one since the program’s inception 14 years ago. They’ve worked together to make sure that the bears are safe as well as comforting. “When we first began the program here, my main concern was ensuring the children would not be exposed to additional germs while being treated in the hospital,” explains Betty Jo. As a result, Betty Jo and her team learned the health standards and requirements of care in sterile environments and incorporated those standards into the production of the bears. The placement of the bears was also critical; bringing them directly into the emergency rooms, x-ray rooms, and other non-public environments ensured the spread of germs was minimized. Also, the bears are crafted with an enormous amount of care, ensuring correct hygiene and elimination of choking hazards.
Over the course of 14 years, Betty Jo Nash and the volunteers of the Bear Hugs Program have produced 80,461 bears, of which 9,440 are “Special Edition” Christmas bears for the holiday season. The task of ensuring that the bear supply never runs dry is often a tedious process of driving from place to place to check the locations, but it is a process that Betty Jo, her husband Wayne, and the members of the Bear Hugs Program would not trade for the world. “All that we do is driven by passion and the desire to be help the children at the hospitals heal,” says Wayne.
Betty Jo keeps a scrapbook containing thank you letters, pictures, cards, and e-mails from children, parents, and congregations near and far. But if you want to see the difference that the Bear Hugs Program has made in the lives of tens of thousands of children, you don’t have to look any further than the expression on a child’s face when he’s been given a bear to hug during a frightening time.
For more information on the Bear Hugs Program, please contact Fayetteville Church of Christ at 770-461-3617.