Bears, ultra-soft and fluffy in cheerful colors like canary yellow and piglet pink, will be doing their part to bring smiles and comfort children with cancer at The Ronald McDonald House and Rady's Children's Hospital. The bears are part of the Del Mar/Solana Beach Optimist Club's Childhood Cancer Campaign, an idea conceived by long-time member Audrey Eller. The cheerful bears come in an activity bag filled with ways to keep kids busy in the hospital and were first handed out in April. A second distribution of bears is scheduled for Sept. 13.
While the Optimists have been fulfilling wish lists at the Ronald McDonald House for the last 19 years, the bear project is a new one. Eller pitched the idea to the Optimists and they were sold, recruiting Sandy Renner and Tim Edwards to serve on her committee.
Their first delivery was so well received they decided to go for it again. This time instead of a tote bag, the kids will be getting miniature backpacks. Eller is hoping that this is a project that will extend past September.
"We want to keep raising funds to keep this project going," said Eller. "We've got to keep the funding coming in to keep doing this."
Eller has been an Optimist for 20 years, her husband Dave a member for 25 years.
"I joined the Optimists because of the work they do with the children in the community," said Eller. "There's so many things that they do that people are not aware of. They are a group of dedicated, hard-working people."
The dedicated hard work of the Optimists on the Childhood Cancer Campaign was enough to get the attention of Solana Beach Mayor Joe Kellejian, who gave the group a proclamation in June and named the month cancer awareness month.
Each backpack comes with a mix of six items in addition to the teddy bear; Eller has a great time finding fun new items to go in the bags. There are hand puppets, disposable cameras, photo albums, card games, puzzles; mobiles kids can make to bring cheer to their rooms and journals. The journals the hospital especially liked because it gives children a chance to write about their experience and express what they are feeling.
The younger children, ages 2-3 or younger, receive a smaller version of the bear. As the Optimists and Eller have sadly discovered, cancer spares no one. A baby as young as eleven months old is even living at the house, bravely taking her first steps down the hallway.
"It is terribly sad," said Eller. "If we can just bring a smile to their faces and bring them some pleasure, that's what it's all about."
Eller has lined up four local Girl Scout troops to help pack the bags. Del Mar Troop 1119 will go first, packing backpacks at Rady's on Sept. 13. The Junior Girl Scout troop is made up of nine Sage Canyon fifth graders.
"It's an opportunity for our girls to extend a hand to the Optimists," said Lisa Mauer, troop leader. "I'm sure they will love it."
The Ronald McDonald House is located in Kearny Mesa, close by to Rady's Children's Hospital. The house has 12 bedrooms and they provide everything they can to the children and their families: Meals, a computer center for parents to e-mail or research, even laundry detergent. The house becomes a home for the children and a community for the parents as they are living with people who understand exactly what they are going through.
While McDonald's is in the name of the facility, the restaurant chain only provides 15 percent of the house's funding. While McDonalds comes up huge for the house, one nearby chain donates eggs and milk every morning, they still have a long way to go.
"We rely heavily on donations," said Daniel Stinton, associate director of development. "It's something we have to constantly overcome but we really get a lot of support."
Currently, the Ronald McDonald House is building a new facility on top of the Rady's new parking structure, with completion expected in January. The house will be four times bigger with 47 bedrooms and an outside courtyard area that will eclipse the unusable 10 feet by 10 feet area the current house has.
"We are very excited," Stinton said.
In addition to the bears, the Optimists also provide paid 30-minute telephone cards for the parents of children at Rady's and at the McDonald House. The cards are incredibly helpful as sometimes only one parent can be at the hospital with their child and they have much news to communicate with family members.
"People who donate to us know exactly where the money is going, right to the children," Eller said. "And you know it's doing a lot of good for a child that really needs the attention."
Donations can be sent to The Optimist Club Childhood Cancer Campaign, P.O. Box 196, Solana Beach, CA 92075. For more information call (760) 510-9535.