KALISPELL – Not every teddy bear passes the “cuddle test” for 5-year-old Emma Anderson.
The toy bears have to be huggable and not too hard; otherwise they’re left on the store shelf. Teddy bears that feel “just right,” though, are sent on a special mission to young cancer patients at the University of Washington Cancer Center.
“Every kid needs to have something to squeeze when they get scared,” the Kalispell youngster stresses.
The idea for her Cuddle Bear Project sprang up last year when a friend from her ballet class was diagnosed with leukemia and underwent treatment at a Spokane hospital. Emma and her mother, Jeri Anderson, and her “Auntie Suey,” Sue Ellyn Anderson, followed Emma’s friend’s story on the CaringBridge website and sent cards and gifts.
Not long after that a friend of the Andersons, Lori Giardina of Kalispell, was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer and went through radiation treatment at the University of Washington. Once again, the family was on the CaringBridge website, this time following Giardina’s progress.
It weighed heavily on Emma’s mind when Giardina wrote how the hardest part of her journey with cancer was seeing all the children coming in for treatment.
“Do kids ever get scared, the ones Lori talks about?” Emma asked her aunt.
When her aunt answered honestly, “Yes, I’m sure they do,” Emma contemplated what could be done about it.
Then the light bulb went off.
“I have an idea,” she declared.
She would send teddy bears to these children so sick and far away. Using her weekly allowance money, she bought 20 teddy bears, named each one and with help from Auntie Suey wrote a note for each child. Her grown-up friend, Lori, got a bear, too.
The first batch of bears was shipped in November last year, and since Giardina was still in treatment, she shepherded the project on that end.
“I was just hoping they’d accept them,” Giardina said. “They thanked me. They were so thrilled to get the bears.”
It didn’t take long before Emma started getting handwritten letters thanking her for her generosity.
It wasn’t enough for Emma, however.
“I have an idea,” she announced. “We need more bears.”
The second shipment of teddy bears was sent to the Cancer Center just a few weeks ago, and a third batch is being gathered. To date she has sent 53 toy bears.
A plaque detailing the project, along with a photo of Emma, now hangs in the UW pediatric examination room.
“It’s fun to share Emma’s compassion,” Sue Ellyn said. “Yes, she is my niece, but she does stuff that you wish other kids would do just a fraction of. Some days you wonder where she comes up with some of her thoughts.
“She is truly a gift and a blessing.”
Word has gotten out about the Cuddle Bear Project, and a few donated bears have found their way to the Andersons’ home. But Emma still is using money she earns from doing household chores to buy more bears.
Jeri Anderson traveled to China to adopt Emma when she was a baby. Both Sue Ellyn and Emma’s grandmother, Clara Ellen Anderson, along with other family members, have shared in the joy of raising her.
Jeri has set up an email address, Emmascuddlebears @hotmail.com, for anyone wanting to inquire about the project or offer donations of teddy bears.
“We told her we’d help as long as she has a passion to do it,” Jeri said.
Sue Ellyn added, “We would love to see this continue so that we can send bears to other institutions that would have a need and want to be a recipient.
“Emma’s project truly mimics a saying we have on Emma’s bedroom wall: ‘From small beginnings come great things.’ This really does depict Emma’s project. What started as a very small thing is materializing into great things."