Built for SHARING

Story by Johnna Walker

“Hey kiddo, this is Dad. Be good for Mommy and I’ll be home soon.” 

This message is typical of the personalized recordings placed inside 420 Soldier Bears that were distributed to children of Army National Guard troops in 1-206th F. A. Battalion deployed to Iraq. Each bear is outfitted in military fatigues identical to those worn by soldiers in the desert. 

The Soldier Bear is a project of the Pope County Salute to Freedom Task Force. Jim Bob Humphrey, Chairman of the task force, says the project was first announced at a January 6th send off ceremony for the troops. The troops were headed to Camp Shelby in Mississippi for training prior to being deployed.

At that time, the intention of the group was to provide Soldier Bears for each child of each soldier in the HHQ Battery in Russellville and in Golf Company. The task force was committed to purchase bears for this group of approximately 150 soldiers, but wanted to extend the program further. If enough revenue was raised, they could include the children of troops from the entire Battalion of almost 600 soldiers.

The troops were at Camp Shelby for three months of pre-deployment training and deployed to Iraq in mid March. The task force began to contact community leaders and business sponsors to help support the project. The Build-a-Bear Workshop CorBEARate office in Kansas City, Mo., was contacted and agreed to give the task force a 30% discount off the retail price.

Purchasing 600 bears would cost around $18,000. The task force asked individuals to participate by donating to the program. In just ten days, $10,000 was received. The fund raising efforts resulted in revenue of $17,500. Donors were individuals, civic groups, Chambers of Commerce and businesses.

The Build-a-Bear Workshop sent 600 Build-a-Sound recordable modules and blank labels for the troops’ personal information to Russellville. These were hand delivered to Camp Shelby by 1Lt. Jonathan Metcalf, Rear Detachment Commander for the 1-206th F.A. HHB. The modules were distributed to the soldiers and the messages for the children were recorded. Then, 420 recorded modules were returned back to Russellville at the end of March.

The next step involved a two-week period during which the task force members typed each soldier’s information into a data-base. Then each of the 420 recorded modules, name tags and personalized labels were packaged together and returned to Build-A-Bear Workshop in Kansas City.

For two months Build-A-Bear Workshop product deployment department assembled each Soldier Bear and kept them with the proper identification so each bear would go to the correct child. The Soldier Bears were then shipped to the Russellville Area Chamber of Commerce.

Task force members and the staff of Humphrey Funeral Service spent two days at the Chamber building organizing the bears. This task included taking each of the 420 bears out its bag, checking the voice module, putting it in its own “bear house” with the matching label, then grouping by individual company.

On May 13, in an emotion-packed ceremony, the Soldier Bear project completion was announced. Major General William Wofford, Adjutant General of the Arkansas National guard and a Russellville native, was in attendance along with several other military dignitaries. Also present were several state legislators and the mayors of Russellville, Morrilton and Dardanelle.

The ceremony began with a video of some the area troops sending messages to their families from Iraq. Then, Major Damon Cluck telephoned Humphrey from Iraq and was able to address the crowd. Twelve Soldier Bears were then presented to children from each of the six Batteries in the 1-206th F. A. Battalion.

The first children to be presented with the Soldier Bears were two girls, sisters, approximately six and eight years old. As the girls heard their father’s voice, they were moved to tears — as was most everyone in the audience.

Major General Wofford was called upon by Humphrey to speak to the two girls. He assured them that their father was safe and that everything that could be done to ensure his safe return home was being done.

As additional children received the bears, their reactions were different. One little boy asked, “how did my daddy get in there?” The older children seemed to understand that dad is not at home right now and this bear is his way of keeping them company until his return.

Following the ceremony, task force members attended Family Readiness Group Meetings in Russellville, Dardanelle, Paris, Perryville and Little Rock to distribute the bears. Additional bears have been picked up by family members or shipped by the task force.

Since then, more requests are coming in for Soldier Bears and the task force is filling the requests as they are received. Because of requests from soldiers who are already deployed to Iraq, the task force created a website where the soldier can order a Soldier Bear for his or her child and record his or her voice online from Iraq. The website is www.soldierbear.org.

Task force chairman Humphrey said the idea for the project and its name actually came from his four-year-old grandson, Landon Humphrey. Landon’s birthday party was a Build-A-Bear Workshop party. When Humphrey asked what the task force should call the bear project, Landon said, “well, ‘Soldier Bear’ of course!”

The Pope County Salute to Freedom Task Force took on the project of providing the Soldier Bears to the children of local troops. With the strong support of the citizens and community leaders from this area, the Soldier Bear program has reached farther than the task force could have imagined.

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