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Bears for Hope: Touching the ‘hearts’ of Israel’s children

A fledgling organization based in Israel has a unique way of providing hope to children who are hospitalized and especially those with heart disease: through teddy bears.

Bears for Hope was born out of one mother’s journey through the challenges and fears that come when your child nearly dies from medical complications. Julie Viselli’s daughter Anavah was born with complex congenital heart disease and underwent a series of dangerous heart operations in her first few months of life.

“For two months she teetered between life and death,” Viselli shared. “We lived two and half months of our lives not knowing whether she was going to live or die.”

At some point in their journey Viselli discovered the “mended heart” teddy bear and bought it for Anavah, who is now 9. Her daughter quickly bonded with the bear.

“The bear is like her — someone who still always goes to the doctor, someone who understands, ‘I have heart problems and I take medication every day. He has a scar like me,’” Viselli said.

The cozy chocolate colored companion is cuddly and cute, but he also sports a zipper on his chest which, when opened, reveals a heart — with a zigzag scar through its center. A bear who has, like Anavah, undergone open heart surgery.

Inspired as she watched Anavah bring her bear to appointments — and give him “medicine” every day as she takes hers — Viselli decided more children needed this comfort.

“I just got this idea that every child who has had heart surgery needs a bear like this,” she recalled.

Two years ago, Viselli opened her first crowd-funding webpage with a goal of purchasing 60 teddy bears at $30 each. Within a week she exceeded her goal. When the bears were delivered to Israel, Viselli and her family distributed them to patients at three hospitals.

“We saw how impacting it was for the hospital staff and the children,” the mother of four recounted. “It was good for us to talk to the parents and we saw how encouraging Anavah’s story was for the other parents and the staff.”

This prompted her to do another round of fundraising and she upped her goal to $10,000, which also came in quickly. Some non-profit organizations contacted Viselli wanting to donate, but since she didn’t have an official charity, they couldn’t help. That’s when Viselli decided to open an amuta (non-profit organization) — and Bears for Hope was born.

Photo courtesty Bears for Hope
Photo courtesty Bears for Hope

Now Bears for Hope distributes about 30 bears a month. And while many assume teddy bears are simply a catalyst to bring comfort, Bears for Hope also aims to educate medical professionals and parents about play therapy. “Play therapy can help children understand what medical steps they face and calm their anxieties about the unknown,” the organization maintains.

In fact, a study by Soroko Hospital in Beersheba found that children who participated in their Teddy Bear Hospital were 33 percent less fearful of their medical procedures after their dolls underwent the same treatments first.

Dolls that relate to specific needs have become popular in recent years: a Barbie with a hijab; a doll with Down syndrome; characters in wheelchairs; and dolls of various ethnic backgrounds have become more available to help children feel more comfortable with their own unique traits.

Photo courtesty Bears for Hope
Photo courtesty Bears for Hope

The mended heart bears are doing similar work throughout Israel. Doctors take a bear’s blood pressure and explain where they will make the surgical incision. Israeli hospitals have asked Viselli for more bears for their staff.

One cardiologist at Hadassah Ein Karen stopped on his rounds when he saw a child holding a mended heart bear.

“‘That is the greatest bear! A few weeks ago a girl who needed surgery was really afraid and I used one of these bears to calm her fears,’” Viselli recounted him saying. “‘I unzipped the heart and inserted the tube and showed her what I was going to do.’”

“It was so touching to me that this bear was able to help calm the fears of a girl I didn’t even know,” Viselli said.

The high quality dolls are made in America. Viselli and volunteers distribute the bears at hospitals, but she makes it a point to keep some aside for one-on-one visits.

Bears for Hope — and having a child with special needs — has opened doors for Viselli to meet people in Israel she otherwise would not have.

“An orthodox Jew from Jerusalem shared a video of Bears for Hope on Facebook and a Muslim woman from Beit Hanina saw it and contacted me saying she wanted her son who has Down syndrome to meet Anavah,” Viselli said.

“The great equalizer is special needs. It just shows that there’s something about special needs or sickness that breaks down the political barriers.”

Followers of the Bears for Hope Facebook page span religions and nationalities.

“There are no politics in hospitals,” Viselli said. “When you’re there we are all just parents fighting for our children.”

376c6c32-a4a6-4266-a077-51569eac36e4Viselli has given out bears to Israelis, Palestinians and to Africans who have come to Israel for life-saving surgery through Save a Child’s Heart. Even teenage heart patients, too cool to accept a teddy bear, have sheepishly approached Viselli to ask for their own as well.

“The bears transcend age,” Viselli laughed.

They also transcend language. When Viselli encounters families who don’t speak Hebrew or English, all she has to do is unzip the bear’s chest and show them the mended heart. The families cry together.

“When I was in the hospital with Anavah I remembered every phone call. You never forget those who reached out,” Viselli said. “When you’re a family with a child in the hospital, and some volunteer comes and brings you a teddy bear, you realize that somebody cares.”

Viselli’s passion to comfort others arose out of her own harrowing times as Anavah was in and out of the operating room.

“When you almost lose a child, it changes you,” she said.

When doctors diagnosed Anavah’s underdeveloped heart at two weeks old, only one surgeon in all of Israel agreed to operate on her because of the complex and critical medical situation.

“It was one heart surgery after another,” Viselli said. “One heart surgery, then 10 days later another, and 10 days later another.”

When she was released to go home after two and a half months, Anavah’s parents were tasked with administering six medications and one shot a day plus connecting her to a heart monitor nightly. At 3 years old, Anavah underwent another surgery. Now 9 and healthy, she remains under constant observation with the prospect of more surgeries looming.

So in the meantime Viselli wants to expand her teddy bear distribution to children with cancer, special needs, and other various types chronic illnesses.

“I think every child should have a bear,” Viselli smiled.

And if it is up to her, they will.

Read more about Anavah’s story and the work of Bears for Hope here

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N.J. Schiavi has lived in Israel for over 15 years and is a freelance writer for Kehila News Israel.

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