Jim Pietro knew a good idea when he heard it.
In 2002, the president of Worcester-based Mid-State Insurance embarked on a journey to offer children who’ve suffered traumatic experiences a sign of hope. With his brother Paul, Mid-State’s chairman, Pietro founded the nonprofit organization Bears on Board Inc. (Facebook), which has placed over 15,000 teddy bears into the small, defenseless hands of local children in times of crisis.
“I believe that companies in the area should give back to the area in various ways. Although we had several other ways we were giving back to the community, the Bears on Board program was something we could call our own,” said Pietro. “The Attleboro [Area] Council for Children spoke about how they distributed some bears to the police and fire departments and to different organizations so they can hand the bears to kids in emergency situations. I thought, ‘Gee, that sounds like such a great thing to do.’ We asked if the organization minded if we took this concept into our own community and they thought it was a great idea.”
Some dozen years later, the idea has spread to communities such as Fitchburg, Southbridge, Taunton, Raynham and Brockton. Police and fire departments from all these cities and towns, and the state Department of Children and Families, along with Vital Emergency Medical Services of Worcester, are the combined recipients of thousands of teddy bears per year.
To attract more donations, Bears on Board has set up a crowdfunding campaign at Indiegogo with a $5,000 “flexible” fundraising goal.
“It is tough to break the ice with children in traumatic situations. Children are taught not to talk to strangers,” said Pietro. “At times, when the parent or care provider is injured or is facing a traumatic circumstance, the children are the only points of contact for the police, fire and/or EMS department. The bear allows [for an] open a line of communication between the emergency responder and the child.”
Pietro said a Worcester Police lieutenant described one Bears on Board scenario: The program was implemented in an emergency situation in which a mother and four children fled an abusive husband. The family members showed up at Worcester Police headquarters with little to no belongings, hoping to make a break from domestic violence. The officer, who was able to give each child a bear, said to Pietro, “I wish you could see the faces of the children. It’s a good thing you’re doing.”
The enormous level of support has been astonishing, said Debbie May, Mid-State’s operations administrator, who expressed gratitude for local donors. “We purchase the bears wholesale through outlets like [Georgia-based] Burton + Burton, and are purchased between $2 and $3 per bear. Some submitted orders are between a thousand to 2,000 bears,” she said.
With a purchase order of more than $6,000 to maintain inventory, donations to the nonprofit organization are considered vital to keep the program running.
The Indiegogo project “is brand new to our organization and our method of raising money for teddy bear purchases. An intern over the summer introduced us to crowdfunding,” Pietro said. Mid-State will continue to hold its Teddy Bear Picnic event each summer, “which we use as a big sponsorship event,” he added.
Mid-State, located at 93 Stafford St., has partnered with several businesses to help promote its Bears on Board mission, including “great sponsors” such as Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, Plymouth Rock Assurance and Clinton Savings Bank, he said.
While testing the waters of crowdfunding to raise money for teddy bear purchases, Pietro and May continue to reach out to local supporters and business affiliates in their network to maintain inventory.
“There is definitely a need for these bears. I have seen and heard from children – now adults – who have said that they received a bear over 6 or 7 years ago when they were faced with a life crisis and they still have these bears in possession. It’s a great thing to see,” said Pietro.
With today’s children seemingly being exposed to an increasing number of traumatic experiences, Bears on Board is making a positive impact. By addressing the intense levels of stress and uncertainty children face during times of trauma, the program’s purpose is of immeasurable value.
Bears on Board does not only accept monetary donations to fulfill its goal: It also accepts newly purchased teddy bears from individuals and organizations.
The days are limited as the crowdfunding deadline is approaching, but feel free to contact Debbie May or Jim Pietro at 508-791-5566 for further information on how to contribute.