KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa — Thousands of brown bears invaded the United Service Organizations building here last Tuesday. But personnel aren’t trying to cage the beasts; they’re looking for small arms that would be perfect to give the stuffed animals lots of hugs.

Build-A-Bear Workshop — a chain store in the United States in which shoppers can customize and stuff their own bears — donated approximately 5,000 bears to the Okinawa USOs. Angela Durko, the USO Pacific marketing director, said the bears are for military children through the store’s Operation Stuffed With Hugs program. She said the first 200 customers in all Build-A-Bear stores across America on May 15 — Armed Forces Day — were able to build a free bear that would be donated to military children.

Durko said the 121 USOs worldwide were asked how many of the more than 40,000 free stuffed and decorated bears they each could use. She asked for, and received, 5,000.

Durko’s next task is to find bear “caretakers.” The first distribution stop was U.S. Naval Hospital Okinawa.

“We want every new mother to take home a bear,” Durko said. “We also want every child who has to spend the night in the hospital to get one.”

Amanda Woodhead, hospital public affairs officer, said the hospital received 700 bears for the various medical clinics throughout the island. She predicted the contribution would go a long way toward making kids feel better.

“For children, the hospital can sometimes be an uncomfortable place, especially when they are ill,” Woodhead said. “The gift of a teddy bear can lift their spirits and make them a little more content even though they feel sick. We were humbled by the donation and grateful for the support shown to the children of those who serve our country in all capacities.”

Durko said the bears also would be used to lift the spirits of children whose parents are deployed.

“We’re trying to set it up so any deployed parent can request that a bear be sent to their child with a letter saying, ‘Even though I’m far away, I’m still thinking of you,’” Durko said.

Bears also will be given to all Women, Infants and Children offices and will be used as contest prizes at various base events throughout Okinawa.

Some bears even will make their way back to the United States, given to children just before they board the twice-a-week “Freedom bird” flights, Durko said.

She said receiving a donation that directly benefits family members was nice; most donations to the USO directly benefit servicemembers. “The kids sacrifice too,” Durko said. “It’s just a small token of thanks for their support of their parents.”

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