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Bears ease burden for kids in crisis

Sue Lucarelli is the founder of Hugs Across

Sue Lucarelli is the founder of Hugs Across America, a not-for-profit organization that provides teddy bears to children in crisis. (June 11, 2011) Credit: Frank Posillico

Manhasset’s Sue Lucarelli was teaching her fourth grade class at The Churchill School in lower Manhattan, on the day of the 9/11 terror attacks. Her primary focus was consoling her distraught students, and she turned to the only tools she had -- three teddy bears.

“One little boy said, ‘All I know is I need a hug,’ ” she remembered. Lucarelli happened to keep the bears in her classroom, so she used them to make sure everybody got a hug.

“I told the kids that if they were able to share on that day I’d make sure they all got bears.”

And they did.

Lucarelli, with the help of Community Reformed Church in Manhasset, ended up providing each of her students and more than 58,000 New York City children with teddy bears in the weeks following the terror attacks. She then started Hugs Across America later in 2001 to brighten up the days of other distressed children across the United States. On Saturday, Lucarelli was at the organization’s annual Teddy Bear Picnic at the church to raise money for Hugs.

The program now has 200 chapters across 36 states -- a Milwaukee chapter just sent 300 teddies to Joplin, Mo., to console young victims of the tornado that destroyed their town three weeks ago. The Manhasset chapter sent 800 bears to the New York City Red Cross to go to Japan shortly after the March tsunami.

The program also places bears on fire trucks and in police cars so that emergency responders will have them to give to children at traumatic times. John Runge, the administrative officer with the Plandome Fire Department, has seen firsthand the good it can do.

Last summer the Plandome Fire Department responded to a tree falling on a house, just over a little girl’s room.

“Our lieutenant, Rob Saville, came to the conclusion that she needed a hug,” he said. “He got a teddy bear, gave it to her, [and] she was brightened up with a big smile across her face.”

The teddy bears don’t just make the recipients feel good. Lucarelli remembered in the weeks following 9/11, one of her students was helping her distribute the bears she had gathered for New York City’s children. She beamed as she recalled him keeping his bear tucked under his arm as he gave out bears to others.

“The most important thing to him was holding his bear and handing bears to other kids,” she said. “It’s really a wonderful thing.”

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