Dick and Ardi Wilson have shared their cuddly kind of love for over a decade. Taelor Martin went “beary” while she was in kindergarten, and now she is a teenager. Landen Speck, 7, and Briana Stout, 9, are brothers and sisters who have that fuzzy way about them, too. Following are three stories with a common thread of caring. Each story tells of teddy bear lovers who also like to donate cubbies to others. In so doing, they lift the spirits of people who can use their spirits lifted.
Dick and Ardi Wilson
Ardi Wilson remembered how happy she was after finding out on a blind date that her future husband shared something special in common. “I discovered we both liked to collect teddy bears,” said Ardi, “and from every date we had from then on, I brought him a teddy bear.
I made a little backpack for the bears to put in love notes. Those bears and the notes tell the whole story of the time before we got married.”
Even better, the tender moments shared for the Louisville couple were the beginning of a grand story that continues today.
When Dick decided to have a birthday party for Ardi not long before their marriage in November 2000, she suggested he do something out of the ordinary. Ardi requested that Dick ask the party guests to bring a teddy bear for a gift, and that the collected bears be donated to the local branch of Dream Factory. Dream Factory is an organization that helps children who are very ill, and the local chapter was co-founded in Louisville by Dick Wilson.
Dick liked the idea for the party, so on the occasion of Ardi’s birthday celebration, the couple accepted 193 bears that helped start an organization of encouragement. Dick and Ardi’s personal mission of kindness, called “Ardi’s Bears,” was born.
Today, the couple figures that their project has resulted in the collection of over 35,000 teddy bears. Besides partnering with the Dream Factory, the loveable and fuzzy comfort toys are donated to other young people in the Louisville area and even, sometimes, outside the area. Often the bears go to needy school children or to those living in orphanages. Five hundred of the bears were given to war-weary Iraqi children by way of American troops. Single mothers at Louisville’s Wayside Mission have received bears from the Wilsons, and slightly damaged bears are given to the local Humane Society, where, says Dick, “Dogs love to sleep with them.”
Ardi’s Bears is an uplifting work of love meant to help those who are hurting. Ardi tends to be the one out in front, the “face” of the project. Dick is the effective, behind the scenes person. “I see myself as the collaborator,” he said.
Money to buy bears is accepted, but donated teddy bears are what Dick and Ardi really like to get. The couple tries to avoid the trappings of a big business with lots of paperwork and paid workers. They seek to keep things simple and effective. “The ‘board’ (members) is everyone I know because they know I collect bears,” said Ardi with a grin.
The couple has set up collection points at local banks, and many friends of the Wilsons take on their own searches for teddy bears to donate. “One person goes to estate sales,” said Ardi. “I bet he collected over a thousand bears in the course of two months, and he left them at our back door.” Another person collected over two thousand at yard sales. All involved with the bear project do it because it is fun and are inspired to do so by the happily married couple.
Charming little teddy bears, it seems, bring out the best in others—and even grow romances.
Kindergartener Taelor Martin heard the talk with her innocent ears. She also watched the TV pictures flashing gloom as Hurricane Katrina reared its ugly head in the Gulf Coast in late summer, 2005.
Just like those with years of perspective, she didn’t understand why so many had to suffer, especially other children. All she really knew for sure was that her tender heart wanted to help young kids who are suffering. And so with encouragement from her family and friends, that’s just what she did.
Taelor decided that she wanted to collect teddy bears and give them as gifts of kindness to young people. Added to the treat of a teddy bear, Tailor decided she wanted a candy cane tied around the neck of each of the furry stuffed animals. Her parents contacted the St. Joseph Children’s Home in their hometown Louisville and found out that Taelor would need 42 bears in order for every child there to receive one. She had fun making signs to put on collection boxes, and besides telling those in her family, she even got up in front of her church one Sunday and announced her project idea!
The results were amazing, according to Taelor’s mother, Stacie Martin: “I honestly thought that we would be lucky to get all forty-two,” said Stacie. “However, word spread and she received teddy bears from as far away as California. All in all, she collected somewhere around 230 teddy bears. We then divided them up and took them to several local charities in addition to the orphanage.”
In the last few years, Taelor has organized two book drives for charitable causes and is currently working on a drive to help the local animal shelter. Now early in her teen years with a solid background in leading good causes, one can only imagine how she will help change the world for good in the future.
Landen Speck and Briana Stout
Landen Speck and his sister, Briana Stout, understand the joy of receiving a teddy bear as a gift. It’s happened to them often and never gets old.
When asked why teddy bears bring them such pleasure, they respond in different ways. “They are so cuddly and they have fur!” says Briana. Landen simply answers with a wide and winning grin, something he does often. Both have a personal collection of bears, and most of the fluffy creatures have names. One is “Beary,”another is “Hunter,” and one is called “Stripes,” to name just a few.
But when the two Winchester children really want to know joy, they turn their hearts outward toward the needs of others, mostly to people they don’t even know.
Along with the help of their mother, Daphne Stout, and her husband, Tony, the two have become well-known around Winchester for their teddy bear drive. Their story appeared in the Winchester Sun, which has made their collecting drive a little easier and is an encouragement to Landen and Briana.
Another thing has helped, too, according to Briana. “My school (Shearer Elementary) lets me talk about it on our news show,” said the enthusiastic fourth-grader. They have gathered 300 of a goal of six hundred bears, both from friends and through drop-off places around town.
The real fun for Landen and Briana, though, is when they deliver the bears at places like the Homeless Coalition and the Fountain Circle, a nursing home, both in Winchester. Their bears have also found new and happy homes at the University of Kentucky Hematology Clinic and to Jarrett’s Joycart at the UK Children’s Hospital. Their favorite place to share is at the Galilean Home, a Christian mission home and school in Liberty, a place that has taken in children who have been abused, neglected, or abandoned—hundreds of them over many years.
At the Galilean Home, Landen and Briana enjoy meeting people like “George,” a kind man who has developmental disabilities. “Landen and I were quiet when we first got there but we saw where people with special needs are really nice,” said Briana. The two especially have fun being around the babies in Galilean’s “Angel House,” where mothers serving prison terms have been taken in for temporary care.
It is clear that Landen and Briana are enjoying the project and plan to keep doing it for a good while. They are well-rounded children with a “we can do” attitude and are unusually wise for their elementary school ages.
Landen’s father, Jerod Speck, of Richmond, is amazed by Landen’s good nature and spirit. Landen has picked up his father’s love of the outdoors, and Jerod shared a memorable time between them: “Once we were hunting late in the evening and we never as much seen a deer. As we packed our stuff, I held my head in frustration. He said in the loudest voice, ‘Look how pretty the full moon is, Daddy. We can see the first star from up here.’”
The experience made Jerod stop and think. “At that time, he put me in check. It’s not about the hunt. It’s about the journey and the little things that seem so bright that we parents take for granted every day,” he said.
Landen playfully calls Briana a “tree hugger,” and she responds with, “I don’t like to kill animals.” But even with a few typical sibling differences, their project has brought a special, huggable closeness to the children.
And what is clear is that all who know Landen and Briana are inspired by their innocent zest for life and desire to see others smile a little bit more. Daphne talked about her wishes for the two: “I just want them to be good people. I was taught that we are all made from one God, and I tell them that they’re put on this earth to make a difference.”
It seems that Landen and Briana understand that lesson well, and they are showing they do by their actions.
Steve Flairty is a life-long Kentuckian, a teacher, public speaker and an author of three books, a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and two “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes,” collections of stories about ordinary people who do extraordinary things. He will publish a version of “Everyday Heroes” for kids this summer. This piece is an excerpt from that book. Steve is a correspondent for Kentucky Monthly. His column for KyForward appears weekly. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.