Sue Reutlinger, center, shows Jim Givens of Panera Bread the 'Pedi Bears' being made by NARH volunteers as fellow volunteer Carolyn Marcil looks on.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — For the last few years, volunteers at North Adams Regional Hospital have been churning out some 2,000 little stuffed bears a year.
The project — supported by donations and by dipping into the volunteers' fund — got an unexpected boost on Wednesday from a group of Panera Bread field trainers conferencing at the Porches Inn.
The nearly 20 cafe-chain employees chipped in $455 toward the project, covering about a quarter of the annual cost.
"They beg, they borrow — they don't steal! — they do raffles," the hospital's Bonnie Clark told the trainers in the meeting room at the Porches. "We have taken it out of their budget to put toward the Pedi Bear project."
Clark, physician liaison for Northern Berkshire Healthcare, and Pedi Bear volunteers Sue Reutlinger and Carolyn Marcil explained the project at the invitation of field trainer Jim Givens of St. Louis.
Givens said the field trainers from across the country regularly get together for conferencing and North Adams was selected this time around. In between meetings and some sightseeing, they also like to leave something behind.
"We try to make things better where ever we go," said Givens, about the donation.
He'd googled the area, found the hospital and discovered it had a pediatrics ward. His original idea was to buy toys and have the group deliver them to the hospital but after contacting NARH, found that wasn't the best idea.
Hospital spokesman Paul Hopkins said the hospital had stopped using toys because "they are virtually impossible to keep clean."
Rather than having toys handed from one sick child to the next, the bears — fresh and clean — are handed out by volunteers and taken home by the patient. Givens, and the rest of the group, liked the idea and decided to donate money toward the bears instead.
Dubbed "Pedi Bears," the simple cloth animals have roamed from their base in the pediatrics ward to populate the critical care ward, the laboratory and anywhere else in the hospital where a patient, young or old, needs a little comfort.
Marcil said elderly people have come to enjoy the bears and she and Reutlinger spoke of a woman who thanked them after her 80-year-old husband died at the hospital holding one.
Reutlinger said the group of volunteers gathers at her house with bears at various stages of completion.
"We have a lot of good friends," she said. "It's a very social little group. ... I compare it to the old-time quilting ladies used to do."
She estimated that the bears cost about $1 to produce, with the most expensive items being the fiber fill and ribbons. Cloth is often donated but project still requires fabric purchases. The donation will make it possible to sew up nearly 500 of the bears and Reutlinger was eager to head to the fabric store in Pittsfield.
"This is going to make a big difference," Clark told the group, as Reutlinger added, "now give us a Panera!"
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