SALISBURY — About four decades ago, Elaine Williams was admitted to Forsyth Medical Center for what promised to be a routine procedure.
It would be anything but.
Elaine’s body reacted badly to the operation, surprising the doctors and turning the low-stakes affair into a matter of life and death. As Elaine struggled in the intensive care unit, her husband Richard worried about the family’s four young children. Looking for a way to comfort Elaine and give her some encouragement, he bought her a small stuffed dog from the hospital gift shop.
Elaine held the palm-sized dog, which she named intensive care, for the duration of her heartbreaking weeks-long stay in hospital.
“It’s really strange, but something like that little dog over there gave her the courage to get better,” Richard said.
Elaine eventually recovered and resumed a normal life, but her family never forgot the traumatic experience. And ICU the dog has remained a comforting element in their home.
Years later, Richard found himself thinking about the stuffed animal as he walked past a construction site that would become Davie Medical Center. He had gone to get a pizza, but the trip turned into an epiphany.
Looking at the unfinished skeleton of the building, Richard thought of the patients who would be treated there. Some of these patients might like to have a stuffed animal, he thought.
At this time, Furry Hugs was born.
Elaine and Richard officially started the nonprofit in 2014 with the goal of distributing stuffed animals to hospitals and health care facilities across the state.
For the past eight years, that’s exactly what they’ve been doing. Furry Hugs have provided miniature giraffes, frogs, pigs, dogs, bears and other stuffed toys to patients young and old treated for everything from a sprained ankle to stage cancer. terminal. In 2018, Furry Hugs delivered 3,383 stuffed animals.
“These teddy bears are a way for Elaine, myself and our children to give back,” Richard said.
Furry Hugs are headquartered at 1310 Richard St. in Salisbury. This is the facility where the family runs Williams Companies, Inc., parent company of Value Clothing, which specializes in exporting used clothing, footwear and home textiles to less fortunate countries.
Furry Hugs is primarily run by Richard, Elaine and their daughter, Tina Williams, who oversees social media and the association’s website. Richard and Elaine’s three other children, Richard Jr., Candy and Wendy, are also participating. The association is entirely financed by donations. Nobody gets a salary. All money received goes directly to the purchase of stuffed animals.
When Furry Hugs receives a new shipment of animals, the Williams family and several volunteers gather at 1310 Richard St. to pack them up. Everyone gathers around a table in a conference room, assembly line style, and wraps each stuffed animal in its own ziploc bag before placing dozens of toys in cardboard boxes. Within hours, the family and volunteers usually ransack several hundred animals. On a particularly productive day, more than 800 animals were packed up, ready to be delivered to a hospital.
The nonprofit currently provides stuffed animals to about 10 different health facilities in the area. Furry Hugs tries to stay as local as possible. However, Richard said he would never turn down a request for stuffed animals from a hospital, no matter where the facility might be located.
Deliveries are made in person by Elaine, Richard or Tina. That’s when they have the chance to hear uplifting stories about the impact of their little animals. A hospital volunteer once told Elaine that he had first thought animals were useless. It didn’t take him long to change his mind.
“After a week or two he said he was convinced it was a good thing to do,” Elaine said.
The animals were originally intended to comfort children, but Elaine said she quickly realized another demographic was particularly fond of plush toys.
“Older (patients) don’t have as many visitors,” Elaine said. “A lot of them treat stuffed animals like dolls and babies.”
A stuffed pig or soft frog is sometimes a child’s first stuffed animal after entering the world. Other times, a Furry Hugs animal is what an older person can hold on to in hospice care.
Prior to the pandemic, Furry Hugs held an annual Christmas event called Holiday Hugs. The Williams family and volunteers were meeting at a nursing home and handing out stuffed animals.
“Some of these people who were in their 80s or 90s, you give them one of these teddy bears and it was worth more than a million dollars to them,” Richard said.
Tina remembers seeing the faces of dementia patients light up when they received their gifts.
Furry Hugs have also donated pets to Sheriff’s Services for officers to use in case they need to remove a child from a dangerous situation.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced Furry Hugs to limit in-person hospital deliveries. However, the organization pivoted and began delivering animals to vaccination clinics, including Novant Health’s clinic at the JF Hurley YMCA in Salisbury. The animals have been particularly useful in vaccinating children aged 5 to 11 years.
“When my vaccinators give them these stuffed animals, it’s amazing how they change,” said Leonora Ver Halen, co-site manager of the clinic. “All the sudden tears dry up and you see smiles where you might have seen a frightened look.”
Ver Halen said the clinic is very appreciative of the animals provided by Furry Hugs.
Furry Hugs is always looking for volunteers and appreciates donations, no matter how large. For more information, visit furryhugs.org. Online shoppers can support Furry Hugs by purchasing through Amazon Smile after nominating Furry Hugs as the charity to benefit. Amazon donates 0.5% of the price of an eligible AmazonSmile purchase to Furry Hugs.
Elaine still has ICU, the little stuffed dog that started it all.