People & Philanthropy Furry Friends Who Bring Comfort  

In celebration of Child Life Month last March, young patients at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center donned surgical masks and took on the role of provider at the Teddy Bear Clinic. After choosing a stuffed animal from a table filled with furry friends, the children used bandages, mini X-ray machines, oxygen masks, stethoscopes and more to take care of their animal patients under the guidance of clinical staff. They took vital signs, performed COVID swabs and learned coping strategies.

The goal of the clinic — which was fully sponsored this year by Bear Givers, a nonprofit dedicated to using teddy bears to bring comfort and joy to children around the world — is for the stuffed animals to help ease children’s anxiety and fears about medical care.

“Through these clinics, the kids become more familiar with the procedures that are going to be done on them,” says Joseph Sprung, chairman and founder of Bear Givers, who estimates that the organization sponsors 20 teddy bear clinics a year. “It really comforts them and allays their fears. And there’s nothing more cuddly or that’s better received than a teddy bear.”

“It’s a universal symbol of comfort,” adds Diane Lempert, executive director of Bear Givers. “It doesn’t matter how old you are, where you’re from, your background or your language. When you’re given a teddy bear, instantly it’s recognized as a gift of comfort and kindness.”

Sprung — the son of Holocaust survivors whose interest in philanthropy began as a basketball-playing college student who used any winnings from tournaments to support medical services in Israel — got the inspiration to start Bear Givers after he took a trip to Israel in 2002. Wanting to bring comfort to Israeli children in hospitals during the violence of the Second Intifada, Sprung (along with 20 friends who joined him on the trip) brought teddy bears to young patients in eight hospitals across the country. He saw the power of the teddy bear to brighten the days of children, so he came back to the United States and founded Bear Givers in 2009 to continue doing this important work.

Sprung has built Bear Givers to include a variety of programs, which have reached 70 countries.

Bear Givers became connected with the Children’s Center in 2023 after Sprung received a call from David Hackam, surgeon-in-chief and professor of surgery, about a potential partnership.

Since then, Bear Givers has committed to donating a bear to every child who is staying at the Children’s Center for care — an estimated 1,000 bears thus far — and contributed $50,000 to support the general pediatric surgery team. Sprung also plans to work with Hackam to bring Bear Givers’ Kindness Program, which engages all young people to decorate bears and write cards for those in need of comfort, to Baltimore City public schools.

Michele Mirman, an attorney who is president of Bear Givers and Sprung’s wife, says: “One of the hardest things in the world for me is to see a small child, sick in a hospital, not truly understanding why they are there. Because of Bear Givers, we can lighten a child’s day and show that they are loved and cared about.”