On Christmas night 1996, 8-year-old Caitlin and her mother, tired but happy after a holiday filled with food, family, and friends, settled in front of their television set in Ipswich, Mass., (pop. 12,987) to watch the news. They expected to see others across the country celebrating—what they watched instead, dampened their holiday.
“We saw some pretty harsh reality in news footage of children who spent their Christmas on the streets of Boston and in soup kitchens,” remembers Robin Phelan, Caitlin’s mother.
As they watched, Caitlin said she wanted to help. But what could an 8-year- old do? Then, she got an idea. “I happened to have a bear in my hand,” now 13-year-old Caitlin remembers. “And I thought it would probably comfort these children we saw on television that made us so sad.”
And with that, the Teddy Bear Foundation was born.
Caitlin and her mother only planned to do one teddy bear collection—scheduling it to run the following November to Christmas day. They made posters, called newspapers, and put collection boxes in stores.
“We thought at first it was going to be friends and family getting teddy bears to give out on Christmas,” Caitlin says. “But it just exploded, and everybody in Massachusetts and even in other states were helping out and donating teddy bears, and it’s just wonderful.”
During that first drive, they gave away more than 500 bears. Enlisting help from friends, the budding group picked up bears from donors and delivered them to selected locations. Robin’s nursing background made her aware of shelters, homes for children, and social service organizations that could benefit, and they gave accordingly.
Spurred by their success that first year, Caitlin and Robin decided to take on the quest full time. They became a nonprofit charity, formed a board of directors, organized fund-raisers, and learned to write grants. They also grew to more than 60 volunteers—some helping year-round but most working during the annual Teddy Bear Drive that kicks off right after Thanksgiving. Five Christmases later, the Teddy Bear Foundation has given away more than 10,000 bears nationwide and even has sent some to destinations such as South Africa and Iraq.
Carla King is a foster care recruiter for the Massachusetts Department of Social Services, which distributes 4,000 foundation bears. King says the bears can be an enormous comfort to a child during a traumatic situation.
“It’s very scary being a child removed from your biological parents and put into foster care,” she says. “When they go to foster homes, they go usually with the shirt on their backs and that’s it. So if we can give them a teddy bear to call their own, they have something that will stay with them—that they can hold on to.”
The Teddy Bear Foundation is gearing up to introduce chapters around the country. Each new group will be given a kit, designed by Robin and other volunteers, to help establish chapters in their own communities.
Caitlin has taken on the youth sector with Cub Club, an organization within the foundation designed for children. For $10, members receive a newsletter written by Caitlin and her friends, a Cub Club pin, a Teenie Beanie Baby bear, and an Act of Kindness certificate signed by Caitlin.
“This is the kind of philanthropy that’s easy for young people to understand,” Robin says. “Children are reaching out to other children and trying to understand what another life might be like that isn’t as privileged as the one they’ve been living.”
Children and adults participate by buying a bear online through the foundation’s website (www.teddybeardrive.org) and donating it to them or sending them a bear. Used bears, however, won’t work.
“We believe the children deserve something new,” Robin says. “Besides, health issues and the conditions of the bear could be unacceptable.” Other than that, any bear goes.
“It’ll make a child’s day that otherwise wouldn’t get a bear on their birthday or any other special occasion,” she says. “Every person deserves that.”