SACKVILLE, N.B. ­- A program to help young people handle the stress associated with COVID-19 could have use throughout the region, say the people who developed the Comfort Bears program in the Tantramar region of New Brunswick.

Last week, more than 500 young students from the Primary to Grade 4 in Sackville, Dorchester and Port Elgin, N.B. received a bit of comfort and support last week – in the form of soft, cuddly teddy bears.

“It takes a village,” Tantramar COVID-19 Task Force co-chair Carolle de Ste-Croix told SaltWire Network. “In this case, it takes the whole region of Tantramar. It really was a communitywide effort and we’d like to see others follow. We’d love it if this idea were copied and taken to other communities.”

She said it was important for every child in the region to get a bear because while everyone may not need an extra teddy bear in the house, there is no way of knowing who’s struggling.

“It’s not a case of you get a bear because you’re struggling, and you don’t because you’re not. We wanted to make it easily accessible. From the start we wanted every child to get a bear,” she said.

Margaret Tusz-King, co-chair of the task force’s mental health action group, said group members were following the situation very closely in southeastern New Brunswick after Christmas when the province slipped back into the red level amid a surge of COVID-19 cases.

“We heard a lot from families and schools that particularly the young children were not doing well,” she said. “Normally, the teachers close to the children will comfort them physically with even a smile, but there was a real sense of frustration. These young children don’t have the life experience you and I have.”

The group considered the struggles teachers and students were facing at the time, recognizing that local elementary school staff and students had been in the classroom at the red alert level for two weeks and the number of confirmed active cases of the virus was nearing 300 across New Brunswick.

Tusz-King said the thought young students were likely struggling to understand the conversations happening around them concerning their health and safety, and the pressure being placed on them to abide by the new restrictions, is what prompted volunteers to take action.

Wanting to offer comfort to these students and give them a life-long strategy to cope with stress, the task force developed the Comfort Bear project. This mental health tool teaches a well-accepted, life-long mental health skill through the vehicle of a teddy bear.

“Everyone benefits from comfort. What’s more comforting than a stuffed bear to hug,” said Denise Miller, member of the mental health action group and community program co-ordinator with the Canadian Mental Health Association of New Brunswick.

As for the response, de Ste-Croix said the community was quick to respond to the challenge and with the financial support of local donors and supporters (including Atlantic Windows, Christmas Cheer Sackville, Mount Allison Student Union, Pedvac, Port Elgin Rotary Club, Sackville Rotary Club, Sackville Memorial Hospital Foundation, Sackville Memorial Hospital Auxiliary, The Corner Drug Store in Sackville and Village Pharmacy in Port Elgin) 547 bears were purchased.

Also, a group of Pedvac volunteers from Port Elgin went to Sackville for two days to attach a laminated message to the backs of the bears, transforming them into more than just a cuddly toy. The message on the bear’s back serves as a mental health tool that leads the child through an anxiety-reducing breathing technique for times of distress.

“Our mental health action group imagines a child in a time of distress, hugging their teddy bear to their chest, closing their eyes, and with their fingers tracing the breathing practice on the backpack,” Tusz-King said. “Every time they do this, they are building a simple self-calming skill to practice the rest of their life. The impact will be current as well as life-long. There are comfort and mental-resilience-building provided through the one tool.”

She said the response from parents and teachers has been heart-warming. She said it means a lot to families that the community is thinking of them.

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