When her friend was diagnosed with cancer, Jackie Babb decided the best medicine was a fluffy friend. Five years later, she and her bears still bring smiles to sick children.
Jackie Babb, a 21-year-old UF biology senior, was a high school sophomore who had just learned how to quilt when her best friend was diagnosed with cancer. Babb wanted to give a personalized gift, so she stitched together a teddy bear.
The fabric teddy bear became the basis for Sharebear, a volunteer project Babb created in 2007. Since then, she said, it has delivered more than 500 teddy bears to Chris Evert Children’s Hospital in Fort Lauderdale and Shands Hospital for Children at UF in Gainesville.
“We ended up just drawing a bear out on a piece of paper, cutting the fabric to the same size and leaving a hole to stuff it,” Babb said. “It kind of happened on a whim, and we came up with it together.”
One of Babb’s high school teachers encouraged his students to do community service and to create their own volunteer projects. Babb remembered the teddy bear she had created and thought it would be nice to create more bears for children in her community.
“I thought, ‘Oh, this is something I can do. This is something easy, and I’m able to get other kids involved and raise awareness for children in the hospital,’” Babb said. “It’s rough, especially for cancer patients who spend long periods of time there.”
Babb enlisted the help of friends and family, including family friend Ilona Farnes, to help her vision become a reality. Farnes said her sewing room became Sharebear’s headquarters in its early days.
“I sewed the first 200 bears while [Babb] recruited other kids to come help,” Farnes said, “and there were times where my living room had 10 kids in it doing their different jobs, working on mass-producing the bears and just having fun.”
Once the project was off the ground, Babb said she began donating bears to Chris Evert Children’s Hospital, near her hometown of Coconut Creek, Fla.
“When she saw how excited the kids were to get something, it inspired her to continue the project,” Farnes said.
In 2011, Babb volunteered at Shands at UF. Although she was away from her hometown, she continued to create and donate bears to Chris Evert Children’s Hospital. She said she hadn’t thought of transferring that practice to Shands Hospital for Children until she met a young girl who wanted a cuddly friend.
During a volunteering shift, Babb was introduced to a young patient and asked to entertain her for the day. Babb asked the girl if she wanted to play board games, but the girl’s mom said she was too young to understand board games.
The little girl asked Babb if she could find her a stuffed animal to play with, and she got the idea to expand her program so children could enjoy the fabric friends, too.
“They’re a source of imagination and play, especially for kids who don’t know how to play games,” she said. “It’s a completely different toy for them.”
After meeting the little girl, Babb decided to donate bears to Shands Hospital for Children, too. She has made two deliveries to Shands at UF, donating about 120 bears to the hospital’s child life program.
Babb said she does not have enough volunteers to help her make personal deliveries to each hospital room and interact with the children. She said she’d like to change that.
“Back at home, we actually go to the rooms of the patients and give out the bears and talk to them,” she said. “So far, there hasn’t been enough volunteers, so it’s been [the hospital] giving the bears to the kids. I want to set up deliveries to interact with the kids.”
The organization has about 10 active volunteers who help make the bears. At one time, there were 40 people involved with Sharebear, Babb said. Student organizations at UF are starting to get involved in the process, too.
She said that at last count, more than 2,000 bears are currently being cut, stuffed and sewn. The fabric has mostly been donated from people in South Florida.
Three large garbage bags sit in the laundry room of Babb’s Gainesville apartment. The bags are stuffed to the brim with teddy bears that are ready for donation.
Babb’s 1-year-old dog, Dart, sniffed and pawed at the bags. Babb has not given him his own bear yet. She said she’s worried he’ll eat the stuffing and get sick.
Both children and parents appreciate the bears, said Amanda Hughlett, a child life aide at Shands at UF. The bears are especially important for children in the pediatric emergency department.
“Children love having something to cuddle with because it is such a strange environment,” Hughlett said.