An empty toy donation bin and a trip to a department store in 1990 led a former Coronado police officer to bring law enforcement together – year after year – to deliver soft, cuddly companions to the little patients at Rady Children’s Hospital.
Twenty-eight years ago, just days before Christmas, former Coronado Police Department Officer Brian Hardy was walking through the halls of Rady Children’s Hospital. He got lost and stumbled upon a toy donation bin.
He looked inside but the bin was nearly empty.
Hardy asked a nurse why there were only a few toys in the bin and she told him toy donations for patients had really decreased that year.
That night, he went holiday shopping at Montgomery Ward. When he walked into the retailer, he noticed a stand filled with teddy bears, all on sale.
“A little light went on,” Hardy told NBC 7 on Tuesday. “I went in and bought 12 bears.”
With permission from his boss, Hardy put the teddy bears in his police car and drove the toys to the children’s hospital.
“I just thought it would be kind of neat to bring teddy bears in a police car, and let the kids see that,” he explained. “And everybody followed since then.”
Nearly three decades later, the San Diego Regional Law Enforcement Teddy Bear Drive has grown into an annual tradition at Rady Children’s Hospital. Today, local, state and federal law enforcement officers take part in the event.
On Tuesday, a sleigh carrying teddy bears and Santa Claus arrived at Rady Children’s Hospital. More than 100 officers lined up outside the facility, bears in hand, to distribute the toys.
Hardy was there.
He said he felt “just as inspired” as he did 28 years ago.
The retired police officer said he believes the teddy bears bring a source of comfort to young patients as they navigate the difficulties that come with being hospitalized.
“They’re not feeling well; there’s a number of things going on at the hospital. To a child, that’s scary stuff,” said Hardy. “To walk in and be able to give them a little friend to hold on to through the worst of it, it really brings me back every year for the past 28 years.”
And, as happy as that toy might make a child, Hardy said the feeling of giving a teddy bear to a little one is just as magical for him.
“It’s as close to being a superhero as you can be in a mortal body,” he said, smiling. “It’s unreal, surreal – to see the child’s face light up.”
Mia Gonzalez, 9, had a smile on her face Tuesday after receiving a small, brown plush from a police officer.
“Merry Christmas,” the officer told the girl as she happily accepted the gift.
“That’s never happened to me before,” Gonzalez told NBC 7. “It feels good.”
Gonzalez said she thinks the Teddy Bear Drive is a nice holiday tradition.
“It’s good that they do that because some kids are really sick and I think what they’re doing is really good for them, and for us,” she said. “Thank you for helping us sick kids.”
This year’s Teddy Bear Drive was hosted by the Oceanside Police Department.
Rady Children’s Hospital said the facility is typically unable to accept plush toys as donations for safety and infection control reasons, but the bears donated to the hospital through the event have been specially packaged by the manufacturer to protect patients.
Since the Teddy Bear Drive began, more than one million stuffed toys have been given to patients.
Hardy takes no credit, though.
“I was in the right place at the right time, and I’d like to give divine intervention credit completely,” he told NBC 7. “I believe all of these people you see here, in law enforcement, are all here to help people. It’s what they’re bred to do; what they’re born to do. It’s absolutely from their hearts.”