“The Gift of Childhood Magic”
Published in The Strip Magazine
Every year there is some new hot toy that comes out right in time for the holiday shopping season. You remember the news stories of overzealous parents getting in fistfights over the last “Tickle Me Elmo”, store owners desperately trying to replenish their stock of Zhu Zhu Pets.
Usually, by the time the holiday season rolls around the next year, these toys are quickly dropped to make room for the newest toy trend. Elmo gets lost underneath the bed, the mechanical hamsters run out of batteries.
But every once in a while, a child will have a toy that remains a favorite in their heart, no matter what new loot the Toys R’ Us catalog tempts them with. More often than not, it’s a simple stuffed animal, something that has been around them since before they even had the capability of remembering. They make room for the new and trendy, but when it’s time for bed, that old beat up teddy bear will be on the pillow next to them.
Sometimes this favorite stuffed toy is lucky enough to make it through the child’s teenage years, even college. It sits, one eye dangling from a brittle thread and its fur coat threadbare, on a closet shelf, waiting to be brought back out. It’s no longer appropriate to lug it around but the grown up child still can’t bear the thought of tossing the beloved scrap of plush in the trash.
There is no consoling a child who has just lost her best friend because its arm was ripped off in a pillow fight. The Teddy Bear Hospital of Pittsburgh operates on the belief that sometimes “as good as new” is better than “brand new”. Sometimes, replacing a best friend with a new version is not an option. If it is possible to save a beloved stuffed animal, the Teddy Bear Hospital is dedicated to giving it the best care possible.
Jill deBroff is the head surgeon and owner of the Teddy Bear Hospital of Pittsburgh, which is located inside her storefront on Butler Street, Babies and Bears. Besides restoring stuffed friends for clients, Jill also fixes up and resells donated stuffed animals who are ready for a new best friend. Her store contains a treasury of items for babies and nurseries, many of them handmade or antique.
Jill also sees many patients at her hospital that are their grown-up owners are not ready to part with. One such case was Benny, a brown stuffed dog, who was the childhood friend of a woman who was getting married. Someone cared enough to bring Benny to Jill. A dog had chewed off his forehead and parts of his eyes. She cleaned him, restored him back to health and gave him a special archival storage box to keep him in perfect shape. Jill completely dedicates herself to each patient, as though they had a beating heart beneath their plush fur. She takes the time to match stitching with vintage thread from the time when the toy was manufactured. She replaces missing eyes with the closest match possible. The return of an old beloved friend, restored back to good health, is not something you can buy off of a wedding registry at Target.
During the holiday season, things start to get really exciting around the Teddy Bear Hospital. Jill sorts through bags full of donated stuffed animals and cleans them, restores them, outfits them with a shiny new bow, wraps them up and places them in the store window. Children who come into the store can purchase the smaller packages for $1or a larger one for $5. That’s part of the fun—the fact that the toys are wrapped up. The kids choose them based on their shape and size, and get to be completely surprised by what’s under the wrapping. For most kids, it doesn’t even matter. They’re going to love that bear no matter what it looks like, because they chose it.
The kids probably don’t realize it but the parents do: they are learning about giving and love. These are lessons that aren’t easily learned in the typical commotion of holiday shopping, when all we are thinking about is spending. Shopping malls and department stores are busy and chaotic, with shelves stocked full of hundreds of copies of the same brightly colored toys. At a place like Babies and Bears, the child can relax in the sweet and calm environment, take time to lovingly assess each individual toy, and select the perfect friend for their little sister, best friend, or even themself.
“It is a fun time for the children as well as the parents, who see their child spending wisely. The children feel a sense of compassion and care. And the teddy bears find a new pair of arms to hug and hold them – true holiday spirit,” says Jill. The stuffed toys are affordable so that the children can afford to use their own money and understand the responsibility involved. They can also experience the pride in selecting gifts for their best friends, siblings and parents.
Children are also encouraged to take part in the donating. Older kids can learn compassion and selflessness when they become too old for their stuffed animal collections. Instead of stuffing those unwanted toys that are taking up room in the basement and putting them out in the trash, they can participate in donating them so that they can be loved again by another child.
The children are also learning something that the rest of the world is just beginning to understand as we have become more eco-aware in recent years. New isn’t always better. You don’t have to throw something away just because it isn’t perfect anymore. With a little bit of care and loyalty, something old and tired can be turned into something new and exciting that can be loved again. Dr. Jill isn’t just restoring teddy bears, she’s preserving memories, real and tangible in the form of plush fur and button noses.
Visit Dr. Jill’s Teddy Bear Hospital of Pittsburgh at Babies and Bears, 4304 Butler Street in Lawrenceville.