Our son, Eric Montgomery, of Lewes, DE, makes his business work for children ….
LEWES, DE — Many Sussex County newborns come home from the hospital to nurseries painted robin’s-egg blue or cherry-blossom pink, with brand-new cribs set beneath calming and colorful mobiles, and shelves already laden with toys.
Many others come home with parents who are unable to afford the most basic necessities – bottles, clothing, diapers, baby wipes, blankets, lotions and all of the other items that most families could not imagine living without. For Philip Brown, founder and president of Bear Hugs for Babies, the stark contrast has become all the more apparent with the persistent economic downturn that has gripped the county for nearly four years.
“We see so many hardworking families who manage to live paycheck to paycheck until someone loses a job, which becomes all the more overwhelming when they’re bringing a son or daughter into the world,” Brown says. “There’s no way to describe the kind of stress that comes from knowing that you’re not going to be able to provide the most basic, essential things that a newborn needs.”
The level of poverty faced by these families surprised Brown, a Sussex County native, when he returned home after living for several years in Philadelphia, where he founded a volunteer group that distributed teddy bears at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
“I thought it was a cool thing to do – something that brought a lot of happiness to the volunteers and the parents and kids,” he remembers. “I started thinking about setting up a similar initiative here, but realized that there are thousands of families who need much more than a teddy bear.”
Brown also realized that the region, with its postcard-perfect towns filled with civic-minded businesspeople and well-established volunteer networks, was an ideal place to establish a nonprofit organization that would meet the needs of these families.
“I knew there were plenty of people who would be emotionally affected by the challenges facing newborns and their families and also saw a lot of potential for businesses, hospitals, social service agencies and everyday residents to work in partnership to help them.”
Founded in 2001, Bear Hugs for Babies now provides basic essentials to hundreds of newborns in Sussex County each year.
Delivered in baskets to families at the hospital or referring agency, the supplies typically include essential items such as diapers and bottles as well as booties and clothing, blankets handmade by local volunteer groups and the signature item – a teddy bear.
The organization learns of the families through referrals from approved social service agencies, hospitals and other organizations and tailors the contents of the baskets to each family’s individual needs.
The organization also works closely with a large network of businesses that offer financial support, volunteers, space for collecting items and raising visibility, and more.
“I’m often amazed by the creativity our business partners bring to their efforts,” Brown says. “Judy Ciemana, the manager of Rita’s Ice at the Midway Shopping Center, has been phenomenal. She started out with a donation can and then went on to give out coupons for people who brought items in.
“And last year she created a Bear Hugs Christmas Tree. Schell Brothers also came up with a great way to support us by donating the use of Independence Hall at Independence for a 1950s-themed fundraiser last year.”
Another local benefactor is The Computer Guy, a small business owned by Eric Montgomery that has kept the organization online for the past several years.
“The internet is one of the first places people go to when they want to learn about volunteering or anything else,” Brown said. “We depend on our website for promoting our organization, facilitating donations and forging connections with the organizations that connect us with the families we serve.”
Like many of the individuals who have supported Bear Hugs during the past several years, Montgomery has become a true believer in the organization’s simple formula for bringing hope and happiness to Sussex County families.
While first becoming involved on a professional basis as Bear Hugs’ technology adviser, he became personally involved in supporting the organization after seeing the direct impact of its services.
In recent weeks his involvement became both personal and professional when the organization named him its community relations director.
“Eric understands that local business people want to see tangible results of their investments,” Brown says. “He matches his heartfelt interest in what we do with his expertise in engaging all of the people who want to help.”
Brown and Montgomery both believe that the success in the organization’s partnerships comes from a collaborative approach that enables each business or organization to use its unique resources and interests to, in Brown’s words, “help us put pieces of the puzzle together.”
Organizations and businesses such as Read Aloud Delaware and Kids’ Ketch in Lewes have become involved because of their interests in early childhood development.
And businesses such as Sign-A-Rama, Top-Notch HVAC, The Cottage in Lewes, and Soroptimist International of Seaford have provided much-needed financial support.
Many businesses and organizations also support special events hosted by Bear Hugs’ mascot, Kody O’Bear, who appears in parades and children’s events to promote the mission of Bear Hugs for Babies.
“The more visible we become, the more apparent it is that people really want to do something to help these families,” Brown says.
“Whether they go to our website to donate or volunteer or enlist their employers as our partners, we do our best to make it simple and gratifying to be involved.
“We’re here for Sussex County because its people have always been here for us.”
This month, volunteers got to hang out with Kody O’Bear, the mascot of Bear Hugs for Babies during Story Time with Kody, which benefited the Patriots Head Start Program.