PEMBROKE PINES — All kinds of bears — “Star Wars” bears and sports bears and princess bears — became the newly prized possessions of a group of children who share similar experiences.
On Sunday, Kids Needing Kidneys hosted its sixth annual Kids Needing Kidneys Build-A-Bear Day at the Pembroke Lakes Mall. It’s held at Build-A-Bear Workshop, a store that offers customized teddy bears for children.
With much of their young lives spent in hospitals or hooked up to a dialysis machine,the transplant recipients enjoyed a respite from their medical treatments.
Ajalyn Peebles, a shy 10-year-old, clutched his stuffed “Star Wars” bear, preparing it for the ride home to Miami. His brother, Damon Peebles, 8, standing by his side, looked at his brother’s bear and glanced back at his own, a duplicate.
“I think Damon got his idea from his brother,” said Ebony Pleasure, 32, their mother.
“This is great, it allows Ajalyn to just be a kid,” she said. “He had a kidney transplant when he was five, he has been healthy since, taking medicine every day. I appreciate everything they do.”
The event, which started in 2008, kicked off with eight kids and $800. It has grown this year to 69 kids, who either are on dialysis or received a transplant. Another 71 teddy bears will be dropped off to children at South Florida hospitals, including Jackson Memorial Hospital, Nicklaus Children’s Hospital and Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital.
The strength, resilience and firecracker attitude of Cynthia Jones, whose toddler Dyman Hicks needed a kidney transplant, inspired organizer Laura Kowalczyk. She created Kids Needing Kidneys, an organization that aims to bring joy to children nearing kidney failure through events, after meeting Jones and Hicks at a Pompano Beach treatment center. Kowalczyk herself received a kidney transplant in 1995
On Sunday afternoon, she moved through the store non-stop, making sure all the families had what they needed.
“I do this whole thing for the kids,” said Kowalczyk, of Boynton Beach. “There is a need out there for organs, don’t take your organs to heaven, heaven knows we need them here.”
Kowalczyk partners with the Florida Organ Transplant Association for the annual event to encourage people to donate their organs.
Jennifer Cooper, 49, of Parkland, said that she and her son Chase Cooper have attended the event every year since 2010. When Chase was 5, he attended the Build-A-Bear Day while on dialysis. He made a monkey who wore sports pajamas and named it Jorge. He took Jorge with him when he got his first transplant.
“He kept Jorge in his pajamas, because he was in his pajamas a lot during treatment,” she said. “It was a comfort.”
Chase, 11 now, is learning to play golf. He attends theater camp and wants to be doctor.
Leslie Carlet, 54, of Boca Raton, donates to the event every year. She had her transplant in 1997. “It’s wonderful,” Carlet said. “Laura works very hard to bring joy to the children.”
Kowalczyk said giving back to children is the least she can do.
Kowalczyk said she is thankful for her kidney donor, a 10-year-old boy. “I always think of that little boy. I don’t know his name or anything,” Kowalczyk said. “But I think about the little boy that passed away and saved my life.”
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