Turetzky said collecting teddy bears for victims of disasters, such as hurricanes, first responders or kids with illnesses or developmental disabilities, is all part of the B’nai Brith. B’nai Brith is an international organization (http://www.bnaibrith.org/) with members throughout approximately 48 countries who work to help communities in humanitarian ways.
In 2004, Turetzky said he was reading an article in the Commercial Appeal about how children at the Child Advocacy Center (CAC) was running low on bears for its annual bear walk event. The CAC provides support and services for abused and neglected children.
“I wasn’t the first person in B’nai Brith to ever do this, there was a lodge in Atlanta and in their newsletter I read an article about it. I said ‘I think this would be something we ought to consider doing,’” Turetzky said. “We went down to the CAC, and our goal was to collect enough money to go out and buy 300 teddy bears. We ended up with money for about 200.”
And the money was all collected the old-fashioned way: Making phone calls or stopping at a store to ask for donations, as this was long before online donations became an everyday convenience. Walgreens was one donor, Turetzky said, giving about 80 bears to the cause from a single location.
“We picked up the phone and called some of our board members and we set up teams and we went ‘bear-hunting,’” Turetzky said.
After donating to the CAC, the lodge gave bears to the Harwood Center, an organization for children with developmental disabilities. At the time, he said, the center had a classroom by the Jewish Community Center (JCC).
“We went in and met someone from Harwood there, and we thought, ‘Let’s expand this,” Turetzky said. “We checked with the Jewish Family Service (now JCC), and then we went ahead and we found Wing’s Cancer Foundation, which is the fundraising operation of West Clinic. So we started providing them with teddy bears, first for the one center in Memphis, and the past few years for all of their locations in the area.”
Over the years, the bear hunters have added other organizations and centers, such as the Madonna Learning Center, to their list of bear recipients. Others included the Hope House Day Care Center, a place for children who had AIDS or family members with AIDS, and the Church Health Center preschool and clinic. Even residents at Plough Towers, federally subsidized housing, got onto the list, as did at least one alcohol rehab center in town. The Methodist Germantown Hospital, which has a separate Le Bonheur children’s emergency room, has bears courtesy of B’nai Brith.
“And then of course the Mid-South Chapter of the American Red Cross, flooding victims, hurricane victims, and we also use them for military personnel and their families at the Millington base before they get ready to ship out for training,” Turetzky said.
A nonprofit medical mission called Tikkun Olam Nicaragua received some animals, too—400 bears went to that group the first year the local lodge donated, Turetzky said, added he knows they gave at least 800 bears to that cause over the years.
All in all, that’s a lot of teddy bears.
“I just added up an estimate, and I know we’ve crossed 30,000 mark,” Turetzky said.
Turetzky said most people appreciate the smaller bears, and recalled a law enforcement officer who rescued children from terrible home environments, such as crack houses. He received a teddy bear, and thanked Turetzky for it with tears in his eyes.
“It’s not just the little ones who appreciate it. The police officers, agents like (him), first responders, they have to see this day in and day out and they always appreciate the token,” Turetzky said.
B’nai Brith is a staff-directed group made up of men and women and is a mix of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews, Turetzky said.
“You get a good diverse mixture,” he said.
B’nai Brith does other good in the community, as well. Through the B’nai Brith International Diverse Minds program, high school students write and illustrate children’s books and the lodge publishes one a year, and donates the books to libraries and schools through Shelby County. The winner receives a $5,000 scholarship and the runner-up a $2,000 scholarship, he said.
“Those are really interesting,” Turetzky said, adding that locals, such as Harold Steinberg, have sat on the review committee for the Diverse Minds program. “You’re talking about really sharp folks who donate their time to do this.”
Most of the folks in B’nai Brith who do the bear-hunting are retired, like Turetzky, who was a longtime schoolteacher, although that’s not a requirement—it’s just because retired folks tend to have more time to embark on such missions.
For victims of disasters, Turetzky said the lodge collects bears and donates them to the American Red Cross to distribute—over the years, they’ve gone to various places.
The last seven to eight years, the lodge has been able to get bears online and new technologies have helped streamline the purchase and collection process.
A lot of people stay involved in the project and keep it going, and Turetzky said he couldn’t take all the credit for the teddy bear program.
“Sometimes, it’s the small things that can mean the most,” he said.