By Ann Luongo

The Plymouth Area Coalition for the Homeless has been assisting families in need since 1985. Today, they run, among other things, a family shelter in Kingston, which houses approximately 13 families at any given time. The families stay for between six to nine months as the Coalition’s members help them transition to more permanent housing. In any given year, between 130 and 150 children enter the shelter, with very few possessions of their own.

Christie Nelson has been involved with the Plymouth Area Coalition for close to five years and has been its Treasurer for the last four. She is also involved with the Fundraising Committee and the Finance Committee – and is the founder of Laila & Henrik’s Teddy Bear Program.

“The idea of the Teddy Bear Program came to be after my daughter, Laila, now 4, spent a day in the emergency room at Beth Israel in Plymouth,” Nelson says. “She was 3 at the time and, with all the needles, the IV, and the doctors holding her down, etc., it wasn’t her best experience. In the midst of our day-long stay, a volunteer from the Jordan Hospital Club came by and handed my daughter a teddy bear.” To this day, she says, that bear remains Laila’s favorite. She named it Honey and she tells everyone who wants to listen how she got it and about the “nice hospital lady” who gave it to her.

“It made me think, knowing the comfort the teddy gave to my daughter, about what it could possibly do for a child on the day they enter the shelter,” Nelson says, “and Laila & Henrik’s Teddy Bear Program was born.” The program is named after Laila and her brother. “We launched in May 2017 and are now fundraising so that we can order our first batch of bears.”

The last few months have been spent spreading awareness about the program and doing a lot of research on teddy bears. “It took a lot of hugging and squeezing to find the right one,” she says. Finding the right wholesaler was also a challenge. Nelson wanted to make sure that the bear was top quality and approved to be given to children.

“Most people probably don’t know this, but there are a lot of different certifications in the toy world. And embroidered eyes! It had to have embroidered eyes,” she says. The age range on the children entering the shelter is between 0 and 18 years, so she wanted to make sure that the bear was safe for everyone.

“Due to our tax-exempt status, we are able to purchase the bears wholesale, which helps keep the cost down. The Jordan Hospital Club was very helpful and shared their wholesaler with me, which, in the end, is the one I went with. They supplied me with close to 10 samples of different kinds of bears and, from that bunch, the final one was picked.” It wasn’t too big or too small, she says, “just perfect and incredibly soft. I named him Charlie!”

Nelson’s goal, for which she is currently fundraising on her own, is to order two years’ worth of bears at one time, and she’s shooting for $4,000 in 2017. This will pay for approximately 300 bears, which should cover the shelter’s incoming and existing children for two years.

The children will receive the bear the day they enter the shelter, together with a little welcoming card from their new teddy bear.

“I run the risk of being labeled ‘The Crazy Teddy Bear Lady,’ but it is a risk I am willing to take,” she adds. “I try to visit as many networking groups and community organizations as I can to talk about the program. I strongly believe that it takes a community to make something like this happen.” And that community, she says, is a very warm, welcoming, and loving community – one that has embraced her mission.

She has received help in spreading the word along the way, and some very good suggestions, as well. Pam Peterson Smith, the owner of Creative Pear Marketing & Design in Plymouth, designed the logo for the program, and has done design work for all the marketing materials Nelson needs in her quest to reach the fundraising goal.

“I am so grateful for help like hers. I don’t want people’s donations to go to administrative costs, so I’m eating those at the moment. This is where donations in kind really become important. Pam volunteers twice a week in the shelter, taking care of the children, so she knows firsthand the impact the teddy bears will have. I have also received suggestions in the groups I’ve visited.”

Nelson is also currently working on a different teddy bear order after listening to other people’s suggestions.

“I’m ordering a big batch of much smaller bears with our logo on it,” she says. The idea is to sell these bears at a higher price – each smaller bear covering the cost of approximately two bears given to the children at the shelter. Many business owners and individuals have expressed a desire for this and it also helps to spread awareness around the mission. So be on the lookout for those bears!”

Nelson has received numerous offers of new and used teddy bear donations, but is unable to accept them. “Many people have e-mailed me and asked if I could take their old bears off their hands or if they can donate new bears. Unfortunately, I’m not able to give used bears to the children at the shelter, as we’re not allowed to accept any used toys or baby products. We’re not looking for donations of new bears either, as we want all the children to receive the same bear that we know is safe for them to use.”

As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, all donations are tax-deductible, Nelson says. She is primarily looking for monetary donations so that she can really get the project off the ground.

“So far, the outpouring of support has been tremendous! I am so grateful to all the business owners and individuals who have donated either money or time or both for the cause.”

Nelson, who is a branch manager at Rockland Trust, and was honored at this year’s Cape & Plymouth Business 40 Under 40 awards, is grateful for any amount donated. If you’re interested in making a donation to this special program, checks can be made out to Laila & Henrik’s Teddy Bear Program and mailed to Rockland Trust, 32 Long Pond Road, Plymouth, MA 02360. For more information, e-mail lhteddybearprogram@plymouthareacoalition.org.