Furry friends make it bearable Donated teddies help officers calm kids in distress

By Scott J. Croteau TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF
scroteau@telegram.com

WORCESTER - Handcuffs, handguns and radios. The items are all gear police officers typically carry. But peek into some police cruisers and you might find an item that seems out of place. Teddy bears.
 
They are not part of a police officer's equipment, but in some cases the stuffed toys become an important tool to console a child. For nearly a decade, Mid-State Insurance Agency on Mechanic Street has gathered up the fuzzy bears, packaged them neatly and sent them over to the Worcester Police Department, all part of an effort to help officers ease a child through a tough time. They can add comfort to a difficult situation even if just for a brief while. Anyone interested in donating a bear no more than 15 inches in size may send an e-mail to teddy@bearsonboard.org Lt. William P. O'Connor of the Special Crimes Division, who receives the bears from the insurance group and keeps them in his office, remembers that early in his career officers didn't have anything to help or keep a child occupied. I just remember as a route officer one night a 5-year-old kid was found alone near Plumley Village and the kid was sitting in services without anything, the lieutenant said. One officer put some paper clips, a rubber band and cup together.
 
When Lt. O'Connor moved to Special Crimes, the owners of Mid-State Insurance asked if the department would be interested in Bears on Board, which is modeled after the Attleboro Area Council for Children's Bears on Board program. I came across so many times where children were in distress and we had nothing for them except kind words, Lt. O'Connor said. There was definitely a void. Fires, accidents, during the holidays the bears go to needy children in all types of situations. Every time we see Lt. O'Connor he pulls us aside and tells us a couple of stories, said James J. Pietro, co-owner of Mid-State Insurance. The bears have been used to break the ice with children so they can trust the officer. Lt. O'Connor recalled a story in which a woman had been arrested for shoplifting and her 6-year-old daughter was with her. The girl was in the police station. "It was one of the first times we had something to give to a child," he said. "She fell asleep on our couch with the bear and her thumb in her mouth." Mid-State Insurance was looking to help the community and the Bears on Board program seemed a natural fit. With several area sponsors on board, the group takes the new bears or cash to buy them and packages them. The organization even has teddy bear picnics at which people can donate new bears. Mr. Pietro estimated his group has given more than 10,000 bears to authorities. The Mid-State Insurance program is nonprofit, so 100 percent of the donations go to Bears on Board. "We've been told people have kept them for years because it helped them through that moment," Mr. Pietro said. When Lt. O'Connor receives the bears he puts out an e-mail letting officers know they are available. Members from all departments pick them up. "It's always funny to see these big, strapping officers grab a couple of bears," he said. "They come from all divisions."