When Red Cross volunteer Jane Schumacher showed up at a late-night apartment building fire, she found 10 families waiting for help after what was for many of them the worst night of their lives.
Jane, a member of the American Red Cross Disaster Action Team in Kansas City, Missouri that responds to home fires, saw several children tired and frightened. She returned to her vehicle, grabbed an armload of soft Build-A-Bears and started handing them out to the children.
“Their faces lit up. Most of them ended up cuddling the bears while being cuddled by their parents,” Jane recalled. “There was calmness that went through the room. They were able to cuddle a bear, making a difference for a lot of frightened children.”
The sight of Build-A-Bears bonding with children at a disaster is something repeated scores of times, whether it’s a tornado or a home fire where a family loses everything they cherish.
Build-A-Bear Workshop, Inc., headquartered in St. Louis, partnered with the Red Cross because the retailer’s employes and customers wanted them to be part of the support provided to those recovering from disasters.
The Red Cross has received more than 41,000 donations from Build-A-Bear Workshop since 2001. Some 23,300 bears have been shipped out by the Red Cross since June 2021 to disasters throughout the nation, including home fires and other activities.
For instance, the Red Cross sent more than 500 bears to Hawaii to be handed out to children recovering from the massive Maui wildfire that impacted thousands.
Jacki Breininger, a Red Cross disaster health services volunteer who was in Hawaii, has seen her share of heartbreaking disasters as a paramedic. To her, the bears brought a special kind of comfort.
“Giving out the bears brings so much comfort to people who have lost everything,” said Jacki who lives in the Kansas City area. “It’s a simple, but extremely kind and caring act we can do. I can’t thank Build-A-Bear enough. Their support makes a difference.”
Barry Falke, Red Cross Missouri-Arkansas Region CEO, said Build-A-Bear plays a critical role as a Red Cross partner.
“Thanks to our vital partnership, Build-A-Bear Workshop and the Red Cross bring comfort into the lives of children after disasters big and small,” Barry said. “Through financial support and the deployment of thousands of our bear friends across the country, Build-A-Bear supports lasting impact, bringing smiles and hopes to young hearts in times of need.”
That partnership was witnessed in rural Callaway County, Missouri firsthand by John Mathews and Diana Sommer, two DAT volunteers who helped a couple with two children, ages 7 and 5, after a fire destroyed their mobile home and everything in it.
John and Diana did what they could to help the family, providing immediate emergency assistance of food, clothing and shelter and explaining how the Red Cross could help with their long-term recovery needs.
The family was grateful for the support offered, but the two children were beyond happy when they were handed the bears, John said.
“Since their home was a total loss, these small gifts were even more valuable to them. The parents also seemed to respond to the brief respite from the reality of the devastation that existed just across the road from where we were,” John said.
While Red Cross responders have witnessed the bears helping to calm the children impacted by disasters, they have also seen the bears serve as emotional support to the adults affected, too, noting that in some situations, it’s an adult who is holding the bear as comfort when they realize everything they once owned is now lost in a home fire or other disaster.
JoAnn Woody, Greater Kansas City and Northwest Missouri Chapter executive director, has been on scores of deployments. Her most recent one was to Hawaii as part of the leadership team overseeing recovery efforts from the Maui wildfires.
When she left Kansas City, JoAnn took a Build-A-Bear she named Babs and left the bear behind as emotional support for the disaster responders working hard to meet the needs of those who have gone through such loss, responders who listen and comfort those they assist each day and work to help individuals and families get back on their feet after the tragic wildfires.