Healthy Choices

UC Davis Children’s Hospital patients make new stuffed animal friends

Ceilene Vasquez, 7, of Carmichael, hugs her stuffed dog while holding her sister Hennesy’s stuffed cat after participating in the Build-A-Bear Workshop on Thurs., Feb. 19, 2015 in Sacramento, Calif. at UC Davis Children’s Hospital.
Ceilene Vasquez, 7, of Carmichael, hugs her stuffed dog while holding her sister Hennesy’s stuffed cat after participating in the Build-A-Bear Workshop on Thurs., Feb. 19, 2015 in Sacramento, Calif. at UC Davis Children’s Hospital. rbyer@sacbee.com

Sometimes, kids in the hospital just need a friend. Someone to sit with and talk to, to wheel around the hallways with, to hold during a scary night in a new place. Patients at the UC Davis Children’s Hospital got to make that friend with their own hands Thursday at a stuffed animal event hosted by Build-A-Bear.

The annual event was started last year by Christina and Jason Love, whose 4-year-old daughter Emily spent much of her early life at the hospital while fighting leukemia. Two Christmases ago, the Elk Grove couple took their daughter to a Build-A-Bear Workshop store in the Westfield Galleria at Roseville. Emily jumped up and down with excitement after picking out a pink bear, Christina Love said.

Emily’s parents embarked on a mission to bring Build-A-Bear to the UC Davis Children’s Hospital. Jason Love already raises funds for the hospital in his role as a board member for the Children’s Miracle Network, a nonprofit dedicated to children’s health and the host of the Build-A-Bear event that Emily initially attended. Build-A-Bear is a Missouri-based retail chain specializing in do-it-yourself stuffed animals.

“To a child, (the bear) has its own personality and its own life,” Christina Love said. “Just the thought of putting a beating heart into a child’s bear after they’ve gone through this process, giving it all these abilities that maybe they don’t have or won’t be able to have, we just thought that was so neat.”

The Loves started with a sponsorship page on Tilt.com, a crowdfunding website where users can raise money for everything from medical bills to getaway trips. They asked friends and family for donations to cover the cost of the stuffed animals and ended up raising more than $1,800 – enough to supply new toys to dozens of patients in the Stockton Boulevard facility.

This year’s campaign raised $2,200, of which $1,200 came from the Web fundraiser, $680 came from shoppers at the Roseville store and the rest was from other donors.

Patients in the playroom went through a number of Build-A-Bear stations, starting with a piled-high cart of pre-stuffed puppies, kittens, monkeys and bears. While staff members couldn’t transport all of the elements of the retail store, such as the stuffing machine and the wardrobe options, they encouraged patients to perform the heart ritual, which involves bringing a tiny plush heart to life with a special dance and putting it into the new toy.

With the hearts in, patients made their way to a surgical station, where UC Davis medical students volunteered to stitch up the stuffed animal, taking vitals before and after the procedure.

“(The kids) really feel like they’re a part of the experience,” said Neil Pugashetti, a fourth-year medical student who was suturing Thursday. “They’re putting in this heart, they do the heart ceremony so they feel like it’s really part of them. It’s a really personal experience.”

Medical students and Build-A-Bear staff also brought the activity to the pediatric intensive care unit for patients who required isolation or were otherwise unable to make it to the playroom. Seventy-one bears were distributed to patients Thursday.

While Emily Love, who now lives at home, was not feeling up to attending Thursday’s event herself, it meant a lot to her that other kids would have bears of their own, her mother said. Emily still has her pink bear, Princess.

“The kids just cling to it,” Christina Love said. “It becomes a security thing, something they can hug and love on and take home and treasure.”

Cassandra Mizeur, whose 6-year-old son Jaxon Sanchez was admitted to the hospital with a skull fracture last weekend, said he became very eager when he heard about the playroom event. The family flew in from Chico with Jaxon’s two younger siblings, who made stuffed friends alongside their brother.

“Who doesn’t need a teddy bear?” Mizeur said. “Especially when you’re going through what he’s going through ... how could a teddy bear not put a smile on your face?”

The stuffed animals were brought in from the Roseville Build-A-Bear location, which subsidized the cost of supplies for the hospital and provided staff support. Any bears purchased with this year’s funds that were not distributed Thursday will be used for next year’s event.

“We love to do this event,” said Barbara McDonald, chief workshop manager for the Roseville location. “Our ‘bears’ (staff) all fight to do this event; they all love it.”

Call The Bee’s Sammy Caiola, (916) 321-1636.

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