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Creature Comforts

Recognizing the calming effect that a single plush teddy bear can have on a traumatized child, Lena Bassford is looking to get Comfort Bears into the arms of even more kids in Hamilton and beyond.

There is one story that Comfort Bears founder Lena Bassford often thinks about. 

“Victim Services had been out on a call,” says Bassford. “A mother had experienced domestic violence with her young daughter present, and when the responders arrived, mother and child were sitting next to each other. A volunteer arrived on the scene with a teddy bear, which she gave to the young girl. The child took it right away and hugged it very tight, and in a very quiet voice, almost a whisper, she said to the bear ‘I’ll never hurt you.’”

Bassford pauses. “All the money in the world would not buy that kind of comfort for that child, sitting in the midst of chaos, confusion, and all these strangers suddenly in her home. A child who had just witnessed something horrible, something that most of us never have to. It’s just a teddy bear, but what that bear means to a child in that situation is much greater than we realize.”

This is one example of the effect that a single plush teddy bear can have on the healing of a child who has recently gone through trauma, and it’s the inspiration behind the creation of Comfort Bears. 

Comfort Bears emerged as an idea around September 2021, following a conversation Bassford had with a first responder. “He had to cut our conversation short because he was going out on a call. There were two children in the home, but he only had one teddy bear, so he was running out to the store so he could buy another one for the kids. I thought, ‘I can do something like that.’”

Having recently retired from Food4Kids, a charity she founded, Bassford created Comfort Bears in October 2021 with the intent to provide the bears to children who were seriously or terminally ill, and to children who were experiencing severe trauma. “We partnered with 21 incredible organizations from hospices to children’s aid societies to victim services with the local police to hospitals and children's centres and more.”

Lena Bassford's Comfort Bears provides cuddly stuffed animals for children with serious or terminal illness or those experiencing trauma. Photos: Jon Evans for HCM

Together, these organizations identify children who would benefit from having the comfort of a Comfort Bear. 

Bassford and her partners quickly found that the psychological impacts on the child are incredible. “In cases of sudden traumatic events or accidents, the look on that child’s face when they see a responder or volunteer approaching them with a bear is something to see. For terminally ill children who are in hospital or hospice, the bears give them great comfort in those hard days, and are often buried with them when the child passes on.” 

Despite the numerous economic and supply chain challenges wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic across the world, Bassford says Comfort Bears has been very fortunate during this time, having been received with open arms by individuals and organizations alike. “A wholesale supplier gives us the bears at a 50 per cent discount. While we know many organizations have been dealing with a lot during this time, we’ve been lucky, and we have the generosity of our community partners to thank for it.”

One of those partners is the Hamilton Fire Department. Speaking on behalf of Hamilton Professional Firefighters Association Local 288, Steve Falconi shared the following statement about Comfort Bears:

“As first responders in our community we could not pass up the opportunity to support the Comfort Bears’ goal of ‘bringing sunshine to kids on their cloudiest days.’ With over 530 firefighters responding to approximately 40,000 calls a year, we have seen the many ways in which children can be exposed to traumatic moments. A child navigating life-changing moments such as losing their home and possessions during a fire, witnessing the loss of a loved one, or being in a serious vehicle collision can cause painful memories that last a lifetime.  

“We believe Comfort Bears is a way to make a difference for a child in crisis. These cuddly bears can provide a sense of calm and security to children who are not always able to express exactly how they are feeling during challenging times. Our members are proud to have the opportunity to work with a community partner like Comfort Bears. We look forward to making a difference in the lives of children within our community.”

Steve Falconi, left, and his fellow firefighters at the Hamilton Fire Department have been big supporters of Comfort Bears.

Looking ahead to 2023, Bassford acknowledges the generosity of the Hamiton, Halton, and Niagara regions in particular. “People seem to rally around this issue. We’re lucky to live in these communities, and their support has been incredible. We’ve been fortunate to have Nicole Martin with CHCH-TV as our ambassador, and she has been wonderful, going out and speaking and generating awareness of the program.”

Bassford’s goal is for even more children’s organizations to sign on with Comfort Bears. “Imagine if it costs $20 to provide one of our bears. If we had to go out and buy them, they would be $40. We have no office or paid staff. This is 100 per cent community driven. We hope that we can give another 2,000 bears in the coming year, and we can’t do it alone.” 

Reflecting on these troubled times, Bassford is grateful for many things. “If you have health, a roof overhead, food on the table, and are not going through ongoing crisis, you’ve been lucky. You’ve been dealt a good hand. When we have good fortune, we want to be grateful for it, but the life lesson is what can we do with it? What difference did I make in this world, looking back at the end of life? That’s what motivates me to do what I do. And what a wonderful legacy that our individual donors have left for us, knowing they have brought smiles and warm hearts to so many children.”