KILLEEN, Texas (KWTX) – More than a few kids in central Texas, across the state and beyond lie down holding a precious teddy bear or doll or maybe a unicorn or dog, thanks to a disabled veteran of Killeen and his wife who have served in their mission for 41 years to bring smiles to young faces.
Russ Coburn, 80, and his wife Ann, 79, handed out their first batch of a dozen teddy bears four decades ago.
“The first year we had 12 bears and we were at an event that had a lot of kids there and we were in the parking lot, and we gave them out randomly when the kids came out,” Russ said.
“It went pretty fast and I said, ‘Well, it didn’t work out very well.’ “
It changed quickly.
The Coburns began to monitor stuffed animals – mostly bears – and dolls that were on sale year round, and when the price was right, they bought them.
“Oh, my God, we’ve gone from 12 to 50 to 100, and for the last eight or 10 years it’s 500 or more every year,” he said.
Russ says they have donated the plush boys to a number of groups over the years, including Goodwill, The Salvation Army, and a soup kitchen in Killeen.
But they also give the furry friends to individual children, and they have stories to tell about how the gifts have brightened the lives of young people.
“I get emails, and some are in Europe and all over the country and they say, ‘Thank you, my kid still won’t be without his bear and he’s 8 years old,’” Russ said.
Russ was moved to tears as he spoke about giving a teddy bear to a recently crying toddler at a Walgreens store.
“There was a young woman, and she had a little child, and she was on the phone and kept yelling at this child because he wanted things,” Russ said.
“I said to Ann ‘I’m going to the truck’ because I had big bears there.”
Russ waited for the mother and toddler to leave the store, then walked over to their car and knocked on the window.
“I said ‘I have a bear for the little boy. I see he’s upset, ”and he jumped up and grabbed me by the leg and didn’t want to get back in the car and brought tears to my eyes.
In recent years, the couple have been able to collect nearly 800 soft toys and dolls.
Sometimes the local stores helped.
“We try to get them when they’re on sale after a vacation or something. Some stores even called us when they were ready to go on sale, ”Russ said.
But Russ’s health declined, which slowed the couple down.
And instead of putting the plush toys on sale, stores recently held back inventory for the upcoming holiday season, he says.
Then COVID-19 hit.
The pandemic halted the couple’s efforts as groups and organizations were reluctant to accept donations as the virus continued to spread.
The bears crowded into the couple’s house until last week, when the Coburns found homes for 225 of them at the Killeen Police Department.
“I figured they might hand them out when they take a call involving children,” Russ said.
Russ retired to Fort Hood in 2012 after 50 years and nine months of military and civilian service, but when it comes to teddy bears and the like, he and his wife say they have no plans to retire anytime soon.
“We always have this feeling about kids and taking care of kids,” Russ said.
“We benefit more than the children. I mean the feeling, see this joy. It’s just awesome, ”he said.
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