NEW PALESTINE — A little over a year ago, 9-year-old Emma Mann decided to do whatever she could to help her favorite aunt battle cancer.
She gave her one of her stuffed Build-A-Bears with peace signs on the fur. Which was a big deal, because Emma is all about stuffed animals.
The whole idea, Emma said, was hopefully to make her aunt smile – and to give her something to hold as she faced surgery.
Unfortunately for Emma and her family, she lost her aunt, but out of that loss came an inspiration that is now touching lives throughout the country.
Emma decided to embark on a project to make stuffed bears and distribute them to those struggling with cancer to make them smile and feel better. Wherever they might be.
In fact, seven of Emma’s bears are lifting spirits in four states.
“Right now, we have bears in California, Idaho, Vermont and Indiana,” said Emma’s mom, Janet.
The project – known as Emma’s Peace Bears Project, for the peace- sign-covered animals – took off this spring when the New Palestine Elementary School fourth-grader won the Dani’s Dreams Outdoor Education Center’s “Dream It – Do It!” essay contest, which then caught the attention of the Hancock Regional Hospital Foundation.
The foundation awarded the project a $250 grant through Dani’s Dreams to build a dozen bears, and when St. Louis-based Build-A-Bear got wind of Emma’s dream, it donated another 10.
“We’re very grateful to Dani’s Dreams and Hancock Regional Hospital,” Janet said.
In October, Emma, sister Kendall, brother Cameron and several classmates and friends went to Castleton Square Mall to assemble the bears and write personalized greeting cards to who might get them.
HRH Foundation executive director Nancy Davis said when she saw Emma’s essay there was little doubt about what to do next.
“When you read it and see how thoughtful is, it’s just amazing at her age,” Davis said. “It was a no-brainer.”
Emma’s bears are distributed primarily through word-of-mouth referrals or when the family hears about a patient who could benefit from a peace-sign-clad bear hug.
“When she hears that someone has cancer, she immediately looks for a bear,” Janet said.
Davis said the hospital is looking into a plan that would get at least some of the bears into its newly opened cancer care center as well.
For a 9-year-old, Emma appears remarkably realistic about understanding the limits of what her project can do.
“I know I can do nothing about curing cancer,” she wrote. “But I love how there are lovely smiles covering their faces (with the bears). I feel like a hero to do that.”
As the days pass, Emma hopes to do all the things young girls dream of doing, including making the jump from loving and caring for stuffed animals to real ones and becoming a veterinarian.
One day she hopes “to have a thousand bears” in circulation, which is entirely possible given the fact that she’s already discovered at an early age how to take a dream and make it something more.
Make it a smile.
In her essay, she put it about as well as it can be put:
“Someday, when I grow up I hope to have a bunch of bears to send out to sick people and I hope to see lots of people full of smiles looking back at me.
That’s my dream.”