The University of New England handed off over 3,000 teddy bears and other stuffed animals to the United Way of York County on Friday, Feb. 28, in a ceremony commemorating the University’s fourth annual Teddy Bear Toss.
The toss is organized by the student building managers of the Harold Alfond Forum (HAF) on the University’s Biddeford Campus.
Each year, during both a men’s and women’s hockey game, fans throw teddy bears onto the ice when the Nor’easters score their first goal. The bears – collected in advance through community donations – are then handed to the United Way, which further distributes them to community organizations across southern Maine.
This year’s Teddy Bear Toss, held on Jan. 31, collected a record 3,268 stuffed animals to go to children in the region. To date, UNE has donated 10,168 stuffed animals to the United Way.
“The United Way’s mission is to improve lives by mobilizing people and resources. That is the goal of the Teddy Bear Toss,” said D.J. Whitten, manager of the HAF. “We believe deeply that the planning of this event each year provides our student building managers an experience that complements their overall experience at UNE and gives them skills they can take with them their entire lives.”
Marine biology student Conor Wiley (’21) echoed Whitten’s sentiment. This was Wiley’s second time organizing the Teddy Bear Toss, and he said the collaborative and charitable nature of the event keeps him coming back.
“Being a part of the Teddy Bear Toss and coming to this handoff last year really showed me that there is a bigger world out there and that there are people who would love to be in my position here, worrying about my biochemistry test instead of worrying about things that are much more serious,” Wiley said.
During the ceremony, held at the forum, students and other attendees heard from nearly a dozen community partners about where the bears will go and whom they will benefit.
Kim LaChance, administration coordinator and volunteer manager for Southern Maine Health Care, spoke of the fear children experience when they are faced with a hospital visit and how the teddy bears can ease the suffering.
“The most important thing that people have when they come to our hospital is care, and the care isn’t just clinical care; the care is emotional care,” LaChance told the crowd of about three dozen. “When one of our staff members has the capability to go in a closet and get a stuffed animal for a person, it takes that fear away and gives a little piece of hope that changes the whole scope of their experience there.”
Mike Ouellette, food pantry coordinator at York County Shelter Programs, also spoke about easing fear – the fear and stigma families often face when they enter the pantry.
“Sometimes it is hard to make that step into an organization like ours and admit that you need help,” Ouellette said. “I put all these bears into a room, and when I see a new family that comes in, I invite the child and parents to the room. As soon as that door opens up and they see all these bears, their eyes light up. That fear of being there seems to go away.”
Barb Wentworth, president and chief executive officer of the United Way of York County, thanked UNE and the HAF student building managers for coordinating the toss and subsequent handoff.
“This is such a win-win,” Wentworth said. “That bear – or dog, cat, or whatever it might be – is going to bring a smile to someone’s face. This is like a stone in a pond rippling out: you never know who these will touch.”
UNE President James D. Herbert, Ph.D., welcomed the crowd. He spoke about the University’s partnership with the United Way.
“The partnership between the United Way is strong, and it is growing,” he said. “The Teddy Bear Toss is one of the most fun events for me every year, and this year was an especially poignant and special year.”
Herbert’s comment referred to the fact that this year’s handoff included a donation of teddy bears and other stuffed animals from a memorial to basketball legend Kobe Bryant by officials at Lower Merion High School outside Philadelphia, which Bryant attended and whose gymnasium bears his name.
Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, were tragically killed along with seven others on Jan. 26, in a helicopter crash outside Los Angeles.
The high school is the same one Herbert and UNE First Lady Lynn Brandsma’s three children attended. Brandsma, who also spoke at the event, said the bears were offered to UNE after she reached out to those she knew at the school to express her condolences.
While the bears were received after the actual Teddy Bear Toss, they were displayed in the lobby of the HAF, along with a letter written by Brandsma and cards for UNE students and visitors to write messages of support for those at the school.
“Although I never met Kobe face to face, he was such a large part of Lower Merion High School that it’s hard to imagine that school without him,” Brandsma said. “I am very honored that a very small piece of Kobe’s legacy will be passed on to the United Way of York County and, most importantly, to the children of southern Maine.”
Following the event, HAF student building managers distributed the bears to receiving agencies, including:
- Southern Maine Health Care
- York County Shelter Programs Inc.
- YMCA of Northern York County
- Ruth’s Reusable Resources
- York County Community Action Corp.
- Second Congregational Church
- Biddeford/Saco/OOB Transit
- Hospice of Southern Maine
- Seeds of Hope
- Saco Pre-K
- JFK School
- York County Sherriff’s Department