Nine-year-old Elijah was the first to question why the in utero stroke that brought on his numerous physical challenges received so little attention in health awareness-building campaigns.
"At seven, Elijah was already well aware of the pink ribbons and other popular symbols that helped raise awareness of various health conditions," explains his mom, Jennifer Rutherford. "He just couldn't understand why there was no way to help people understand the challenges he faced on a daily basis."
Mom and son put their heads together and came up with a unique approach to engage children coping with the challenges of in utero stroke and, over time, with more than 27 other health conditions including hearing loss.
The Rutherford's awareness-building vehicles are a quite a bit larger than a pink ribbon. But there's no arguing they make up for size with a significant amount of "warm fuzzies" and smiles. The Traveling Awareness Bears are the feel-good, do-good plush ambassadors that travel the U.S. and the world visiting children with a variety of health conditions.
Education & Excitement
Similar to the popular children's book character "Flat Stanley," the Traveling Awareness Bears journey from home to home, spending time as the special guest of each child. The unbearably cuddly visitors create opportunities for even the youngest children to generate positive interest and awareness in their unique situations.
Each condition has two bears - one girl and one boy - who wear custom made T-shirts that announce the condition they represent. The bears also are outfitted with medical equipment or devices that are unique to the health condition they represent. Henry and Hannah, the Hearing Impairment Bears, wear colorful hearing devices attached by Velcro to their tiny ears.
Oticon Pediatrics' Maureen Doty-Tomasula, AuD, first became aware of the program when Jennifer contacted her about donating the Oticon Safari devices that Henry and Hannah now wear.
"The Traveling Awareness Bears are such a simple - but brilliant - child-friendly way to help children feel special, not different," says Dr. Doty-Tomasula. "The bears magically combine education and excitement and are a great way to make a lasting impact not only on the children who host the bears' visits but on their families, friends and communities."
News of the Awareness Bears' travels has sparked interest among advocacy groups and informal parent networks. The adventures of the individual bears also have resulted in newspaper articles that build awareness far beyond a child's home or classroom.
The success of the Traveling Awareness Bears is a testimony to the rightness of Elijah's vision. Today, children across the U.S. and in Europe have hosted members of the Traveling Bear brigade. In most cases, bears visit for 2 weeks. The bears each carry a passport that families "stamp" with their hometowns as a record of the bear's travels. During the visit, adventures with their new friends are recorded in a journal that travels with the bears to their next destination.
"The adventures include everything from a trip to school, to birthday parties and even doctor's appointments," explains Rutherford. "Occasionally we'll extend the visit for a special occasion - a surgery appointment or a stay in the hospital."
For the young hosts, the arrival of their Awareness Bear is a much anticipated meeting. Many have followed their particular bear's travels on Facebook where each set of boy and girl bears hosts their own page. Facebook fans can read the journal posts created by volunteers who serve as the virtual social secretaries for the bears, completing the journey entries at the end of each visit and sending the bears off to their next destination.
Confidence & Self-Esteem
Beyond awareness building, Rutherford reports the Traveling Awareness Bears have helped children gain confidence and self-esteem.
She relates the story of Brooke, a 4-year-old girl who refused to wear a skirt to her pre-school because she was embarrassed by the brace she wore on her right leg. A visit from Pat Bearowitz, who also wears a brace on his leg, helped Brooke feel comfortable with her brace and encouraged her to wear a skirt to school for the first time. Once at school, Pat became an appealing show-and-tell partner to help Brooke share her special story with her classmates.
In real life, only eight species of bears are recognized, but among the Traveling Awareness Bears, there are 27 different varieties ranging from Hearing Impairment and Cochlear Implant Bears to Autism and Epilepsy Bears.
Recently Rutherford added a physician bear, Dr. Dalaney. Dressed in hospital scrubs, Dr. Dalaney helps to reassure fearful youngsters, who often must undergo frequent doctor's visits and hospital stays.
'Just Like Them'
Families sign up for a visit from the bear of their choice online at www.travelingawarenessbears.org and there is no cost for a visit.
It is not unusual for a grade school teacher to request a visit from the bear as a classroom teaching tool. Volunteers who help keep the bears "on the road" are mostly parents of children who have experienced one of the health conditions represented by the bears. New bears for new conditions are added as soon as ten requests are recorded. And each bear's passport - similar to Pat, the first bear - lists a birth date and a birthplace identical to that of the child whose parent helped to create that bear.
Rutherford has just secured non-profit 501-C3 status for her organization, a step she is hopeful will help the group generate funds that will allow them to expand the organization's service to even more children. A special fundraising bear called Andy serves as the group's "ambassador of disabilities." Similar to the magic worked by his child-focused counterparts, the fundraising bear's mission is to join volunteers on the trail or at the podium during fundraising drives to help boost awareness and appeal and motivate donations and other support.
Rutherford is now in the process of developing an online tracking system to help children follow the travels of the Traveling Awareness Bears.
"For children who often feel isolated by their health conditions, there's nothing like feeling that there is someone just like you," she adds. "What starts with a visit from a bear can grow into a community of children who now have others 'just like them' to share their challenges and successes and help them know that they are not alone."
Jennifer Rutherford is founder of the Traveling Awareness Bears Inc., based in O'Fallon, MO. For more information: 636-544-4025, www.travelingawarenessbears.org, Jennifer@travelingawarenessbears.org