Menomonee Falls resident Noel Schoessow vividly recalls his year-long experience in the hospital recovering from eye surgery as a child.
Schoessow, now 51, was in the fourth grade at the time, and his friend’s sibling had thrown a sharp object in his eye.
“I remember those days, and I remember the loneliness,” said Schoessow. He also remembers his family giving him a puppet named “Fido” that was a source of comfort.
He wants to provide that same kind of comfort by providing stuffed bears to hospitalized children. Schoessow started The Bear Hug Project in 2011 to achieve that mission.
The stuffed bears are all purchased from the Build-A-Bear Workshop store at Mayfair mall. Each bear comes with a ribbon and birth certificate. Volunteers come up with a name for each bear.
This year, the nonprofit sent more than 500 Build-A-Bears — mostly through anonymous donations — to children in five area hospitals: Ascension St. Joseph; Ascension Elmbrook; Ascension Wauwatosa; Reiman Cancer Center – Ascension St. Francis and Prohealth Waukesha Memorial Hospital.
“Knowing that there are many who will benefit from receiving a bear will put a smile on my face that lasts for months,” said Schoessow.
A soft spot for NICU babies
While Schoessow is passionate about donating Build-A-Bears for all children, he is especially passionate about infants in the neonatal intensive care unit.
Owen McCormick, the son of Michael McCormick, one of Schoessow’s volunteers, was born at 26 weeks at Waukesha Memorial Hospital and was transferred to the NICU after he was born.
“He died after 10 days,” said Schoessow. “I feel like I need to do this not only for the kids but for the parents (who have children in the NICU) as well.”
He said that if a baby does not survive, the bear can be a positive memory for the family.
“I cannot picture what these parents are going through,” he said. He said that even if the babies cannot touch the bear, it is in the background in the NICU, and the baby has it when they go home.
Nick Godsey, who is on the board of directors for The Bear Hug Project, said he is passionate about the cause. His son, who is now 7, was in the NICU for 95 days after he was born prematurely.
“(A bear) may have comforted him while I was not there,” Godsey said.
“My son being premature has drawn me to the cause,” added Godsey.
Schoessow said that since his organization started, the nonprofit has bought more than 3,000 Build-A-Bears.
“It is important for kids in the hospital to get a bear for Christmas,” said Laken Schoessow, Schoessow’s daughter, who is on the organization’s board of directors and is a Menomonee Falls High School senior.
“It is important to see kids in the hospital smile.”
To make a donation
A $10 donation supports one bear, Schoessow said. To make a donation to The Bear Hug Project, visit thebearhugproject.org/donate or donate through PayPal at paypal.me/thebearhugproject.