Build-A-Bear Foundation donation to HavenHouse

Sisters Breana and Kayla, from Brookport, Illinois, were among the first HavenHouse guests to receive furry friends courtesy of a donation from Build-A-Bear Foundation. UMSL communication students helped arrange the donation and created a video about it in their Communication Campaigns course. (Photo courtesy of HavenHouse St. Louis)

It was a story readymade to warm people’s hearts for the holiday season.

Build-A-Bear Foundation last month made a donation of more than 680 “furry friends” to HavenHouse St. Louis, a hospital hospitality house providing lodging and other accommodations to out-of-town families with loved ones receiving medical care in area hospitals.

Katie Huggard, Mark Stiegemeier and the rest of their classmates enrolled in “COMM 4100: Communication Campaigns” at the University of Missouri–St. Louis were tasked with figuring out how to best capture the story and bring it to a wider audience.

Jill Alexander, Katie Huggard, Olivia Klank, Sarah Kelly

(From left) Associate Teaching Professor Jill Alexander and students Katie Huggard, Olivia Klank and Sarah Kelly traveled to Build-A-Bear’s downtown headquarters to pick up the donation on Nov. 13. (Photo courtesy of COMM 4100 students)

The course serves as the capstone for UMSL students seeking a public relations certificate. Associate Teaching Professor Jill Alexander challenges them to develop a PR campaign, and this semester they’ve been working on behalf of HavenHouse.

“We talked a lot about social media strategies and how to spread their name, how to get information about them to more people,” Stiegemeier said.

The Build-A-Bear donation became the hook to raise awareness of the organization, which currently operates out of the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel at Westport. Highlighting the donation could help more people learn about HavenHouse’s work.

As the students reveal in the social media friendly, 62-second video they created as part of their campaign, they weren’t just chroniclers of the story. They also helped make it happen.

“This started with us having a brainstorm session in class,” Huggard said. “Jill was talking about how HavenHouse is working out of a hotel right now, and it’s kind of difficult to make it feel like home. She asked us to think, ‘What could we do?’”

Alexander wondered if maybe someone had a contact at a local quilting club they could solicit to make quilts for visitors, but Huggard quickly started pondering a different idea.

Holiday-themed furry friends

Build-A-Bear donated more than 680 furry friends, including more than 100 holiday-themed bears and other animals. (Photo courtesy of COMM 4100 students)

Her father, Arthur Huggard, is the director of eCommerce at Build-A-Bear Workshop. She texted him to ask if the company ever had overstock it gifted to charitable organizations. Her father connected her to Emily Fuhrman, who directs global charitable giving for Build-A-Bear Workshop and Build-A-Bear Foundation national partnerships.

Fuhrman helps coordinate donations of tens of thousands of bears and other furry friends each year, and she jumped at the chance to help another St. Louis-based organization. It just so happened the foundation had some bears and other animals – including more than 100 that were holiday-themed – at its downtown headquarters for which Fuhrman and her colleagues had been trying to find homes.

“One of the things that we really love is that this was their project,” Fuhrman said of the students. “Our part of this was just providing the teddy bear hugs. The students were the ones who had the idea, who had the inspiration, who were moved to contribute.

“We really want to shine a light on that. That’s what makes the world go round. That’s what moves us forward is the kindness and goodwill of the individuals.”

Build-A-Bear donation pickup

Katie Huggard and her classmates had help loading two vans full of boxes of furry friends for transport to HavenHouse St. Louis. (Photo courtesy of COMM 4100 students)

Huggard and some of her classmates, along with Alexander, arranged to pick up the bears on Nov. 13 and delivered them to HavenHouse and its grateful executive director, Paula Lowery.

“We were first told it was going to be a couple hundred,” said Lowery, an UMSL alumna who earned an M.Ed. in counseling in 2008. “When Jill said it was going to be this large quantity, obviously we were thrilled, but we were wondering where we would put them. But the staff was like, ‘We’ll make a way.’”

HavenHouse has access to a hospitality room at the DoubleTree where it offers guests meals and other services, including things they might need if they forgot something at home. Lowery and her team have stacked the boxes of stuffed toys from floor to ceiling, and they also have them in bins in their office space, ready to give out when guests check in.

“Many of our families have zero means,” Lowery said. “They would never be able to take their child to Build-A-Bear. It’s pretty special for them to be able to walk away from a really stressful situation with a hospital stay or visit and give their child something so neat.”

Stiegemeier, who like Huggard is graduating this weekend with his degree in communication, was one of the students who created the video. He spliced together photos and footage gathered by his classmates when they picked up the bears and delivered them to HavenHouse, and he arranged the images to music and added text to guide viewers through the story.

Furry friends

The furry friends are stacked in a hospitality room at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel at Westport, ready to be given out to HavenHouse St. Louis guests. (Photo courtesy of COMM 4100 students)

The video concludes with an image of two sisters, who were the first to receive their furry friends during their stay at HavenHouse.

On Wednesday, Build-A-Bear Foundation shared the video and photos from the pickup and delivery on its Instagram page.

That was tangible evidence of the students’ accomplishments this semester as they thought through messaging and strategy to identify and reach their desired audience as well as learned to use the tools in Adobe Creative Suite.

“The course is designed to be a combination of everything they’ve learned over their college experience,” Alexander said. “I purposefully stepped back and tried to let them drive the bus because I’m not going to be there to tell them exactly what to do when they graduate.”

For Huggard, having that real-world experience has been invaluable.

“It’s definitely an accomplishment,” she said. “UMSL and my education have been fantastic, but this is something I can point to that I did while in school that extends beyond the university. To be able to be involved in the community is awesome, and it’s very validating.”

Stiegemeier echoed those sentiments and was particularly moved to be doing work on behalf of an organization serving others.

“I love the idea of making sure that people who are doing charitable things get what they need and get things that will help them,” Stiegemeier said. “Being a part of that is just an ideal.”

To view the video on Instagram, click here.

Steve Walentik

Steve Walentik