For the Love of Bears!


Out in Western Mass., four women with intellectual disabilities and the staff members who care for them at one of May Institute’s community residences have been bear hunting. “We're not looking for actual bears, but teddy bears,” said Gillian Washington, Program Coordinator.

This scavenger hunt-type of activity – where people walk through neighborhoods and discover teddy bears sitting in front yards and windows, hanging in trees, resting on rooftops, and perched on fences – is helping to “make life bearable” in neighborhoods across the country.

Bear hunting has become a popular outdoor activity for individuals of all ages during a time of social distancing. Many of the bears display messages to stay safe. These lovely acts of kindness are uniting communities; giving people a sense of comfort and hope amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

The activity inspired staff and residents to create bears of their own. 

“We were driving around in our neighborhood and another close by, looking for the teddy bears and counting them,” said Gillian. “We counted 52 bears in total, but only three of those were from our neighborhood. Since our street only had a few, staff thought it would be a great idea to join in making bears and help cheer people up. 

“Since we couldn’t go to the store to get supplies, we used cardboard boxes to make our bears. We wanted them to reflect the personalities of each of the four ladies in the home. We wanted them to be extra special,” said Gillian. “So together, staff and the residents made four very special bears and placed them in the front yard.”

Cathy’s bear wishes everyone to “stay healthy” and encourages people to go for a walk. It reflects her love of sports. 

Shari, the most social of the group, who delights in dressing up, meeting people, and giving hugs, donned her bear with a necklace and earrings. Shari has had to learn about social distancing, and her bear’s message “no hugs,” illustrates her understanding.

Jenny, who always wears a scarf, outfitted her bear with a scarf with Mickey Mouse stickers to show her affection for the character. 

And Cherlyn’s love for going out and shopping, hobbies which are now on hold, are captured in her message, “stay home and have fun.”

According to Gillian, the community response has been overwhelming. Passersby take photos and shout thank-you! “The ladies are so proud because they did that, they made those bears. One of the ladies, who is non-verbal, had this huge smile and was uttering ‘happy, happy,’ ” said Gillian. “It almost made me cry.” 

When asked why these bears are special, Cherlyn said, “We did the project together as a team, me and my housemates. Also because they are unique like we are. They make me feel good to help make people happy. They are gentle and mean hope for my neighbors. We can make people feel better even if we are in a group home.”

“Every day as we head out for our walks, we find ourselves admiring our bears,” said Gillian. “We plan to keep them out there for as long as they continue to bring us and the community some joy.

“Staff and residents have been resilient, helping each other through this time. I am happy and proud to have these women in my life.”