Associates of Vietnam Veterans of America of West Virginia
" OPERATION SWEET DREAMS"
AVVA Brings Comfort to the Children of the Deployed
When it comes to spending a year in a combat zone—surrounded by guns, bombs, tanks, or warplanes, often requiring nerves of steel—it’s more than a little amazing to realize the power a cuddly teddy bear can have.
Linda Pritt, a life member of Associates of Vietnam Veterans of America inWestVirginia, knows this well. Just over a year ago, Pritt had an idea to provide every kid of a parent in the state about to deploy to Afghanistan or Iraq with a teddy bear equipped with a recording of the parent saying comforting things. If the child needs a reassuring word after the unit has shipped out, he or she only needs to squeeze the bear to hearMomor Dad Say something like, “Remember I love you, I’m thinking of you, and I’ll be home as soon as I can.”
The talking bears are typically handed out at predeployment family events. “We give the bears to the parents first, away from the children, and they go off in a corner to record their message, whatever they want it to be,” Pritt said. “Some of these really big, burly guys come back later with tears in their eyes, because they know how much it’s going to mean to their children after they leave.”
Many children carry their bears with them almost everywhere they go while their parents are away. Knowing that the bears help make the separation a little Easier for the kids, in turn, helps make the separation a little easier for the parents. “The kids are all so excited when they get the bears,” Pritt said, “even though they don’t really understand what it means until after the parent is gone.”
Pritt dubbed her program Operation Sweet Dreams. Through the auspices of AVVA it has so far raised enough charitable donations to buy and give away about a thousand teddy bears. Operation Sweet Dreams recently earned Pritt a $5,000 community service award—which will go toward paying for more bears, she says—and the First Lady ofWestVirginia, Joanne Tomblin, wife of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, also has become involved with the program.
“The program is really growing,” Pritt said. No surprise, really, since it was a hit pretty much from the start.
A sales manager for Embassy Suites in Charleston, Pritt is regularly involved with events booked at the hotel. In 2009, a National Guard unit about to deploy brought their families for a farewell gathering. At one point she met a little girl holding a teddy bear. “When she pressed its palm, it had a recorded message from her dad,” Pritt said.
She learned the father had paid $30 to have the special bear made—a price Pritt knew could be difficult for some families to cover, especially those with more than one child. Her idea was to find a way to provide teddy bears to all children of parents deploying with West Virginia military units. Local companies and businesses seemed to be a likely source of donations, but she found out that the IRS required involvement of an official nonprofit organization in order for cash contributions to be tax deductible.
Enter AVVA. Shortly before Pritt got her idea for Operation Sweet Dreams, VVA’s Region 3 held its annual conference at the Embassy Suites in Charleston. By all accounts, Pritt had been extremely helpful throughout The event. “She went above and beyond for us,” said Dave Simmons, president of VVA’s West Virginia State Council. “As thanks, we gave her a life membership in AVVA.”
Later, when Pritt was first putting together the outlines of Sweet Dreams, she broached her idea with Simmons, who thought it was great. In fact, Simmons said he and his wife Elaine assembled a bear for a demonstration to the VVA Board. “They really thought it was cool,” Simmons said.
“I’m so very grateful VVA and AVVA got involved,” Pritt says.
West Virginia auto dealerships have been the largest group of donors, but as Pritt pointed out, “I’ve never had anyone I’ve asked personally for a donation turn me down.” That’s understandable: In addition to being able to show support for families of U.S. service men and women, donors like knowing that they’re not just making a Child happy for a single day, such as a birthday or holiday.
“They know they’ll be touching these kids’lives for a whole year, maybe longer,” Pritt said. “These kids take the bears everywhere. They even sleepwith them.”
Build-a-Bear, a company specializing in customized teddy bears, fills orders from Operation Sweet Dreams, sometimes providing as many as 120 or more bears Ready for voice-recording in as little as two weeks. “Deployments often happen so fast,” Pritt noted. Fortunately, Build-a-Bear has a retail store in Charleston Town Center, a shopping mall near Pritt’s office.
Embassy Suites corporate headquarters regularly presents “I Can Make a Difference” awards to employees for their involvement in their communities.For her work on Operation Sweet Dreams, Pritt won the most recent award—$5,000, which will be used entirely to buymore bears. The check was presented to Pritt in June at a ceremony attended by Joanne Tomblin, who has urged state residents and community groups—through her “Serve West Virginia Military” initiative—to play an active role in supporting and helping deployed service members and their families.
Attending the ceremony was Ashlynn Christy, the 10-year-old daughter of SSG Billy Christy, a combat engineer who has already served one tour in Iraq (2007-08) and one in Afghanistan (2010-11) with National Guard units. Operation Sweet Dreams didn’t exist when her father deployed to Iraq, but Ashlynn did have a teddy bear during his Afghanistan tour.
“It made a big difference,” Billy Christy said. “My wife says she played the message every night at bedtime and she took it with her on trips. It helped her feel like she had a daddy connection while I was gone.”
Ashlynn wasn’t the only one who was comforted. “It made a huge difference for me knowing my family was in better shape during my second tour,” her father said. “My daughter could hear my voice every day if she wanted, but when I was in Iraq she might not hear from me for a month or more. I felt like I didn’t have to worry about her as much, and that made it a lot easier for me to concentrate on my job.”
In retrospect, the collaboration among Pritt, AVVA, and VVA seems only natural.
“I am so proud of the work that Linda has done on this project to make it such a great success,” said AVVA President Nancy Switzer. “She has taken the initiative to help the families of service men and women overseas, and for that we are very proud to call her a member of AVVA. This project is just one example of how our members volunteer.There are so many projects that many of our members are doing, such as the service officer program and the campaign on transgenerational effects of Agent Orange, just to name a few. I am so proud of what our membership has accomplished.”
“I’ve been president of the VVA West Virginia State Council for years,” Dave Simmons said. “I’ve never seen anything like this project before. Linda is very passionate, and her drive is amazing.”