UCA Students Collect Bears for Police to Build Positive Relationships
The soft, fluffy texture of a teddy bear can soothe and calm children in high-stress situations involving police and their parents.
At least that is a main goal of Share-A-Bear, an annual community drive to collect teddy bears and “share” the bears with local law enforcement agencies.
“Police officers can be scary to a child on any call from a traffic stop to other more serious calls. The bears are a way for the officer to calm the child and connect with the child. We have seen very tense situations calmed by simply sharing a bear with a child,” said LaTresha Woodruff, public information officer for the Conway Police Department.
The Conway Police Department is one of four law enforcement agencies that partners with Share-A-Bear.
“Originally, the program started to collect bears for police departments so when they respond to domestic violence calls that involve children, it’s a way to comfort the child in a very negative situation,” said Sherry Lynn Skaggs, assistant professor of criminology at the University of Central Arkansas.
Skaggs came to UCA in 2014 and brought the idea of creating a teddy bear drive with her. Working with the university’s Sociology Club, Skaggs said the first drive collected roughly 600 bears. The first year’s success working with students and the community set the stage for Share-A-Bear’s future.
After seeing the positive reception from the community, Skaggs took the idea to one of her fall classes, Police and Society, with an expansion plan.
“I brought it from the club into my Police and Society class,” Skaggs said. “So that class is an experiential learning and a service-learning class at the university.”
In addition to the Conway Police Department, students partner with three other law enforcement agencies in Arkansas: Faulkner County Sheriff’s Department, UCA Police Department and Arkansas State Police. Each agency is assigned a student liaison who works with Skaggs and the agency to coordinate experiential learning activities, ride-alongs, use-of-force and other trainings. The class is usually about 24 students with a select group of past students to serve as class leaders.
The students set up donation boxes at the police stations and throughout the community. The community responded with not just teddy bears but also school supplies, toys and winter coats.
After a semester of collections, class culminates with a December community event at the Boys and Girls Club of Faulkner County where donations are distributed. Parents and children can visit with Santa Claus, enjoy games and foods and interact with the police officers. Students from the police and society class help to organize the event and volunteer to assist families.
Skaggs estimated that the most recent event in December 2017 drew more than 600 attendees. UCA student Sydney Farquharson was stationed at the Santa Claus line and remembers the reaction of a little girl who received a toy from Santa.
“I just remember she was screaming and yelling and was so happy,” Farquharson said. The little girl also received school supplies and two winter coats.
After the event, the remaining bears and toys are given to the four law enforcement agencies to hand out to youngsters. UCA student Sydney McEwen was a student in the Police and Society class and an intern at the Conway Police Department. One of her office duties was making sure the bears were readily available for officers when they left the station.
“They go to a stop, and there’s a kid there. They can give them a stuffed animal, and they can make that connection with them, so I think that’s cool,” McEwen said.
Since Share-A-Bear began, it has collected at least 3,000 bears and stuffed animals that have been distributed to youth, but Skaggs said bears are sometimes given to adults, a move that also impacts the perception adults have regarding police.
She points to minor traffic violations in which police were able to issue a warning bear rather than a written warning.
“We had a lot of adults in the community get bears,” Skaggs said. “So now every bit of this is dedicated toward how we can improve and grow and strengthen and maintain a very positive police community relationship.”