Creature comfort: Teen collects donated stuffed animals and books to give to sick children
Miss South Mountain Outstanding Teen, Brynn Dao, center, and Leitersburg Ruritan Club vice president John Perrygo, left, and public relations chair Bruce Melton show teddy bears that will be handed out to patients at Meritus Medical Center. (By Colleen McGrath/Staff Photographer / March 11, 2013)
"Books & Bears is a program that I started because my father had cancer, and I could not imagine another young child having to go through the same thing without comfort," said Brynn, 15, who is the daughter of Kara and Christopher Dao of Hagerstown.
Through Books & Bears, Brynn, who is a freshman at Barbara Ingram School for the Arts in Hagerstown, provides a book and a stuffed bear to sick children who are patients at Meritus Medical Center.
The program started as Brynn's platform when she was crowned Miss Smithsburg Outstanding Teen 2012 last year. She has continued the platform since March 23, when she was crowned Miss South Mountain Outstanding Teen 2013.
To start the program, Brynn said she first approached Kohl's in Hagerstown looking for donations. The company gave her more than 1,000 books and stuffed animals to get her started. Later, she partnered with Books-A-Million for her program.
Brynn pairs a children's book with a bear, some of which she receives from the Leitersburg Ruritan. It was a good fit, because Rudy Bear has been the Ruritan's mascot since 1935.
"We work with the community and that one of the things that we pride ourselves on is getting involved with the community and community service," said Bruce Melton, Leitersburg Ruritan's public relations committee chairman. "Brynn came and gave us a briefing of what she was doing and we thought it was a good idea. The Rudy Bear is our mascot, so it fit right in with her theme."
John Perrygo, the Ruritan's vice president, said that they provide the bears.
"We felt that the bears really fit into what she was trying to do with her program," Perrygo said. "Like Rudy, who is our mascot, say if I were 5-foot-4 (inches) with the exact same problem (of being sick) I certainly would love him. And plus, it would take your mind off it, because you can cuddle up with it and it helps with helping forget about some traumatic experience."
Brynn said in more than six months, she's given away more than 1,000 stuffed animals. But she also distributes stuffed animals other than bears.
"I have lions, kangaroos and sheep, and I actually have a lot of different animals, more than just bears," she said.
Children are not the only recipients of the Books & Bears. Her program also reaches out to dementia patients.
"I originally wanted a really young age, but the age can vary," Brynn said. "It can be from 2 or one all the way to as old as 80 because I'm now giving them to dementia patients who are obviously much older than the kids in pediatrics."
Brynn said she is not allowed to distribute the book and the bear herself because of patient confidentiality. So she relies on the Meritus Medical Center Auxiliary to distribute them for her.
Donna Schnurr, Meritus Medical Center Auxiliary president, said the Books & Bears program is a great fit for what the auxiliary does because the program's mission is to help bring comfort to patients.
"They are able to just hold on to something when a child comes in and is sick, especially, they need some comfort and care," Schnurr said. "This gives us the opportunity and the blessing to give them something to hold on to and to have a little faith in, and hopefully know that they will be out of here soon and back with their family."
Brynn hopes that Books & Bears will someday be not solely her responsibility, but the community's responsibility.
"I believe that in the future, hopefully, will be something not only that I take up, but the community will take up. So after I go off and go to college, and maybe get a job, I can do the charity in my pasttime, but I will also hopefully have other young ladies helping with the program, too," she said.
Bekah Wolf is a freshman at Williamsport High School. She is member of Pulse, a broadcast journalism program for teens at The Herald-Mail.