June 21, 2018

Stuffed with Comfort | The Teddy Bear Project That Got Carried Away

A casual comment made at a Christmas party nearly twenty years ago led a Jonesboro couple to devote their retirement years to a bit of travel and a whole lot of teddy bears in what is a “little project that got carried away.”

Although she wasn’t 100 percent sure of the date, Judy Kimbrough believes that she and her husband Larry along with the Knights of Columbus began collecting teddy bears around 2000. The Knights of Columbus are known for community outreach, especially involving children, yet the project came about quite accidentally and possibly because, as Judy tells it, she couldn’t keep her mouth closed.

Founded in 1882 the Knights of Columbus is a Catholic fraternal organization built on the principle of charity. In 2016, the international organization made over $177 million in charitable donations around the world. Larry Kimbrough serves as the District 2 Deputy for the Knights of Columbus Council #7783.

In December 2000, the local Knights of Columbus and their spouses gathered for their annual Christmas celebration. It had become a tradition to do a “Dirty Santa” gift exchange where everyone spent around $10 to purchase a gag gift. Judy made the offhanded comment that it would be better served to spend the money on something that could benefit children and suggested everyone bring a teddy bear instead. Everyone agreed, and that first year, the Kimbroughs collected fourteen teddy bears. In the past several years they have collected and donated between 5,000 and 7,000 stuffed toys each year, and the Knight of Columbus members still bring a bear to the annual Christmas party.

In our short conversation, it appears that Larry is a man of few words while Judy is a woman of many. She had me laughing before I had even introduced myself and informed me that she was “not your basic responsible adult.” A blended family in which Judy enjoys playing the role of the wicked step-mother (she was joking…I think), Larry and Judy have four children, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. They enjoy traveling once or twice a year when they can just board a bus and let some smiley driver do all the work.

The idea for collecting teddy bears was a bit of a lark but turned out to be an amazingly beneficial way to help local children in a time of need. The bears which Larry and Judy collect are donated to area police, fire, and first-responder units where officials can bring them on the scene of an accident or other traumatic events to be given to children involved in the crisis.

Because Larry and Judy can’t be there when the teddy bears are distributed, many officers try to relay stories about the reactions of the children. One officer told Judy, “You cannot imagine how much a child settles when you hand them a bear and ask them to hold it for a bit. It just takes the panic away from you.”

According to Judy, who prefers to let Larry be the “face” of the project while she runs things behind the scenes, kids and teddy bears just go together, and the project was so successful and such a natural fit that it has grown over the years. Storing 7,000 teddy bears must be quite the undertaking, and I imagined a warehouse full of bears. When I asked where the bears were stored, Judy matter-of-factly stated that they keep them in their living room. She quickly counted and informed me that five medium boxes, one large box, two sacks and one giant monkey were currently taking over their living room.

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“It’s still early in the year, and we will keep adding. As long as I keep a clear path to the dining room and the bedroom we’re okay.” Larry then said something I couldn’t hear and Judy laughed and repeated, “And the bathroom. I need to keep a path clear to the bathroom.”

The Kimbroughs claim back their living room for a short time each Christmas when the bears are sent off to the Knights of Columbus to be cleaned before they are sorted and distributed across several local counties. Many go to the police, fire and first responders but some go to other local charities that could benefit from the bears. The smaller ones are often provided to the area med-flight service. Wherever there is a need they will take the bears.

Larry and Judy rarely get to see the fruits of their labor, so I wondered what keeps them going after all of these years.

“It makes your heart feel good because you know the kid is gonna love [the bear].”

The Kimbroughs keep photo books to document each year’s bear collection. 

Judy may say she feels obligated to help Larry with the project because she couldn’t keep her mouth shut, but I believe this project thrives because of her. When Judy and I finished our conversation, she advised me to be moderately well behaved. I laughingly told her I would try and she responded, “Well, that’s the best I can do, so that is the best I can expect.” I like to think a little bit of Judy’s spitfire travels along with each of those bears as they find a new home and a new child who will love them.

Larry and Judy Kimbrough collect bears year round and are always willing to accept donations of new or “gently loved” teddy bears and stuffed animals. First Security Bank is helping Larry and Judy Kimbrough and the Knights of Columbus collect stuffed animals. You may leave your donations at any of their Jonesboro banking centers through the end of July. Individuals outside of Jonesboro wishing to make donations can contact the Kimbroughs directly at 870.935.5623.

Julie Kohl

Julie Kohl works from home as a writer and virtual assistant while raising her young son. A former Yankee who was "converted" to the south by her husband, Julie has grasped on to rural life in a sleepy, blink-your-eyes-and-you'll-miss-it town in central Arkansas. Julie loves adventure. Not necessarily "scare-your-pants-off" adventure but the kind where you seek out new and exciting things. New foods, new places, new experiences. On her blog, Seek Adventures, Julie shares about the outdoor and travel adventures of her family as they camp and standup paddleboard across the South. You can also learn more about her writing on her site Seek Adventures Media.

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