Kinley Hildebrandt has spent more time in the hospital in her seven years than most adults will in a lifetime and she has the teddy bears to prove it.
The bright, bubbly, blond-haired girl was born with Biliary Atresia, a pediatric liver disease. She has received 15 furry friends from Teddy Bears Anonymous, a Saskatchewan charity that gifts bears to sick kids.
She considers each one to be a badge of honour.
"They keep me happy in the hospital," Hildebrandt said from her home in Kindersley, Sask..
Since 2008, Teddy Bears Anonymous has given 160,000 plush toys to sick or scared children in hospitals, ambulances and, more recently, police cars. This year, the pandemic has increased demand for the sanitized bears, which are sealed inside cellophane bags.
"Right now, we're in the right place at the right time with our teddy bears," said Luke Lawrence, president of Teddy Bears Anonymous, while holding a plush koala bear at his home in Regina.
"When a child is gifted this, they're the first ones to touch it."
Sealed and safe
Since March, the novel coronavirus has triggered tighter restrictions on visitors, gifts and personal belongings inside many health facilities.
While a sick child can still take their favourite stuffed animal, blanket or toy with them into hospital in some cases, the rules are ever-changing and often confusing, and parents don't always have time to figure out the latest guidelines or even pack a bag, according to Kinley's mother Candis Hildebrandt.
"A lot of times Kinley didn't have any toys with her when we rushed to hospital, so she would get one of these teddy bears to cuddle and not feel so scared," Candis said.
The mother appreciates that the sanitized bears, which don't have any pieces that could fall off, like buttons or eyes, can go into an operating room, MRI or CAT scan machine.
"I feel like she's not alone going [into surgery]. She's comforted, so I'm comforted," Candis said.
At Royal University Hospital, registration services manager April Brown has helped disperse teddy bears among Saskatoon hospitals for years. She said the pandemic has amplified appreciation for the clean, safe bears.
"We've had a lot of donations in the past where people would bring bears or other items from the store and want us to hand them out, but, unfortunately, just for infection control reasons, we weren't able to do that. But these ones [from Teddy Bears Anonymous] actually come in pre-sealed bags straight from the factory," Brown said.
She loves seeing the excited reaction of children.
"Now, obviously, they're wearing masks so we don't get to see that big smile. But I tell you, you can sure see it even in their eyes," Brown said.
A legacy of love
The charity was inspired, sadly, by Luke Lawrence's own sick child.
In 2007, 20-year-old Erin Lawrence was diagnosed with stage four stomach cancer and began chemotherapy at Pasqua Hospital in Regina. Her father said he was shocked when Erin seemed more concerned about young children at the cancer ward.
"That just blew me away that it wasn't about her, it was about those kids. She should be scared stiff ... but she always thought about somebody else," he said.
Erin passed away within seven months of learning she had cancer.
Afterward, her father tried to give away some of the teddy bears that she had received as gifts in the hospital. He discovered that hospitals and some crisis shelters couldn't accept them because they were considered "used."
Lawrence finally gave them to a friend who worked for an ambulance service and the feedback was immediate.
They were a huge hit, he said.
Teddy Bears Anonymous was born.
Initially, people would buy teddy bears themselves and donate them to the organization. Then the charity began to custom-order the plush toys straight from a manufacturer — at $4 a bear — sterilized, sealed and ready for delivery into the arms of even the sickest, most immunocompromised child in any hospital setting.
"That bear goes where Mom and Dad can't go," Lawrence said.
"It gives me a purpose now to see children being gifted these teddy bears. My daughter would love that."
Easing pressure on frontline workers
Teddy Bears Anonymous has partnered to date with 15 hospitals in Saskatchewan, including the Jim Pattison Children's Hospital, and 30 ambulance services.
Brett Penny, a primary care paramedic in Balcarres, Sask., 85 kilometres northeast of Regina, recently gave one of the bears to a young girl with a head injury.
"It was a little girl who was just terrified of this big stranger in her house and I was able to give her the bear and she just lit up. [It] made her day a lot easier – for myself and her," he said.
It relieves pressure on him, he said, to be able to ease a child "through those stressful situations and make it 'bear-able' for them."
These days, first responders are under a lot of strain due to the added stress of COVID-19, so a simple moment of relief — like sharing a teddy bear with a child — is a gift to everyone, according to Regina Police Chief Evan Bray.
Since 2018, Regina patrol cars have been stocked with bears for officers to hand out to children who are caught up in violence or chaos.
"Even in the dire straits of a tragic situation, it will bring a smile or a small bit of solace to the face and hearts of those involved," Bray said. "Our officers are no different. It feels very good to be able to reach out and do something like that."
In February, before the pandemic started, the Jim Pattison Children's Hospital Foundation announced it was donating $100,000 over four years to Teddy Bears Anonymous.
"We are incredibly grateful for the work Teddy Bears Anonymous does across the province in helping to bring a sense of normalcy and peace to kids in hospital," said Brynn Boback-Lane, CEO of the hospital foundation.
Since then, due to public health restrictions and heightened fears, the charity has had a tough time fundraising.
It's entirely volunteer-run, with no money going to anything but bears, said Lawrence, and he's not comfortable asking volunteers to organize the usual steak dinners and community raffles.
Candis Hildebrandt said she'll continue to search for creative ways to raise money for the charity, to which she is forever grateful.
As for her daughter, Kinley had a liver transplant last year and is spending a lot less time in hospital.
She's staying home with all her bears.