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Bear Hugs 4 Kids

Bear Hugs 4 Kids Tribal Police have issued a BOLO alert (be-on-the-look-out) for the following Teddy bears: cream-colored and brown bears wearing a white T-shirt with the Creek Travel Plaza logo on the front. Some bears might have scarves. All should be considered harmless and friendly.

The Bear Hugs 4 Kids program has come to life again, and law enforcement needs your help to make a child feel safe in a stressful situation.

Creek Travel Plaza (CTP) is the organizer for the bears program, which helps alleviate fear and anxiety in children during traumatic events, such as car accidents, domestic violence, house fires, etc.

For $25, you can purchase two Teddy bears — one will go home with you to keep or give to a family member or friend, and the other bear will be donated to local first responders and law enforcement officers. Or you may choose to donate both bears. It's your choice.

Tribal Police Chief Butch Lee said all 16 patrol officers carry the bears in their cars. When responding to calls involving children, the officers use the stuffed animals as an ice breaker for frightened youngsters.

"Fortunately, we don't have some of the major crimes on the reservation as other places might have," Lee said. "But when we do, the bears give the officers an avenue with children to distract them and keep them calm."

Lee contributes the low-crime rate to the department's role in the community.

"We are proactive in what we do, and we are very visible," he said. "We have enough personnel to saturate the reservation land, and we also help out neighboring police departments when things happen close by."

Tribal Police officers are dual-deputized, meaning they have the same authority as the Atmore Police Department and Escambia County Sheriff’s Office in those jurisdictions. Lee said Tribal Police often assist in traffic accidents and sometimes collaborate with other agencies on a few major crimes.

Making a stressful situation better

In traumatic events, something as small as a Teddy bear to hug can make a child feel comfortable.

Stuffed animals make children feel safe. Children who are victims of a crime or who might be a witness to an accident or situation are often timid and scared to talk to police officers for various reasons. Even home-life situations can be troubling for impressionable children.

"I had a little girl, about 5 years old, come in with her mom recently," Lee said. "Had nothing to do with the girl, but just the idea of being in a police station made the girl uncomfortable, kind of intimidated by the surroundings. So I said to the girl, 'I have a favor to ask you.' I went to the back and got one of the bears and told her 'This friend of mine comes in here a lot but I don't have a place to put him. Would you take care of him for me?' She was excited then and said to me, 'Yes, I will.' That small gesture relieved her fears, and she concentrated on that," Lee said.

Firemen join policemen in program participation

Since the program began in 2015, more than 50 bears have been donated and distributed by the Poarch Police Department. This year, the Poarch Fire Department is getting in on the action as well.

Creek Travel Plaza continues to collect the donated bears throughout the year, and on Dec. 28, 2015, CTP presented the fire department with about 30 bears.

"I have been a firefighter for 30-35 years," Fire Chief Ronnie Jackson said. "Each call is different. But when you get on a scene with children there, it becomes a whole new scenario, a whole new focus."

Tribal EMA Director April Sells agreed.

"Our job is to assess each situation, but our job also is to keep people calm," Sells said. "Our firemen are good about that. If you want to see anyone move quick to get to a scene, just let that tone go off. And when it's learned children are involved, they jump into high gear. Having something like a stuffed animal to give to a child to focus on is one of the best tools to have."

Sells said the Poarch Fire Department previously participated in a similar program like Bear Hugs 4 Kids but hadn't had another opportunity until now.

"We are pleased to be able to participate with the Tribal Police Department in this program, and we thank Creek Travel Plaza for donating the bears to us so we can further help in our community," Fire Chief Jackson said.

Sells said the Poarch Fire Department sees about 800-900 calls per year. The department is responsible for a 49-mile fire district area, which includes Interstate 65. The department staffs two stations, one in Poarch near the police department and Tribal offices and one near Wind Creek Casino and Hotel and the interstate.

Nineteen firemen fill three shifts for the department, which went from strictly volunteer to career (paid) positions in 2009, Sells said.

You can help by purchasing and donating

National statistics show about half of all American children have been exposed to at least one or more serious traumatic childhood experiences, according to a survey conducted by the National Survey of Children's Health.

Teddy bear programs such as CTP's Bear Hugs 4 Kids are promoted all across the country in some form or fashion. Although each program has a different name, the goal remains the same: to alleviate stress and fear a child might have during traumatic events.

A quick online search shows Teddy bear programs involving law enforcement and first responders date back to the 1980s.

General Manager of Creek Travel Plaza Tammy Smith said the program has been well received in the area.

"I've heard a few people remark about the bears and even had some people (buy and) donate more than one," Smith said. "The bears are placed all around the store and when someone checks out and is told about the program, most are more than happy to participate. We love our community, our law enforcement, our first responders — so this is our way of showing our support and helping the children in Escambia County feel safe."

If you would like to purchase a bear for the program, call 251-368-0088 for more information or go by Creek Travel Plaza at 4740 Jack Springs Road in Atmore.

By Jen Peake
CIEDA Marketing Specialist

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