For the past six years, Kay Lavonne Crider has been handing those fuzzy critters out to hospital patients, residents in nursing facilities and anyone else who could use a little human connection through her nonprofit BearHugs Foundation.

Kay Lavonne Crider's home is filled with bears. She has a three-foot tall Grandpa Bear, a polar bear, Christmas bears, and a whole suitcase full of pink and blue teddy bears with embroidered eyes meant especially for babies.

For the past six years, Crider has been handing these fuzzy critters out to hospital patients, nursing home residents and anyone else who could use a little human connection through her nonprofit BearHugs Foundation.

"Sometimes people can be in such a place of pain and they'll say, 'I don't want to be hugged,' or 'I don't want to be touched,' and I'll say, 'Well, would you like a bear?' and I'll give them a bear," she said. "It's an inanimate object to share love and give compassion."

Crider created BearHugs while she was working as a nurse in a busy emergency room in the Houston suburbs and bought a few bears at the dollar store to make the eight-hour wait to see a doctor more tolerable for her small patients.

"It just caught on and I would stop for bears all the time," she said. "It very quickly went to adults. When children see the bears they light up, they're just so happy, and when you give an adult a bear, they cry."

She estimates she's distributed as many as 4.000 bears to the sick, elderly and even some harried retail clerks who looked like they could use a boost.

When she retired to Ashland two years ago, she brought the one-woman operation with her, but that move doubled the amount of paperwork required for nonprofit status in two states. The work became so much on top of her part-time job as a caregiver that she almost dissolved the organization a few months ago.

"I thought, 'I don't want to do all the paperwork, I just want to give away bears,'" she said.

She ultimately decided to keep the foundation when she realized she didn't have to do everything herself.

"I thought, 'Well, anybody can do what I'm doing,'" she said. "My heart wants BearHugs to grow way beyond what I can do. There are lots of people that have huge hearts and want to give."

Crider is considering seeking volunteers and she has dreams of handing out teddy bears one afternoon on the plaza.

Among the thousands of people she has met while giving away bears, one woman at the beginning of the project stands out in her memory.

The woman had already lost one young son to a debilitating disease and her other son had just been diagnosed with the same condition. As the woman was crying, she saw the bears sitting on Crider's desk and asked if she could have one.

"I just sat there and hugged her and let her cry," Crider said. "She said, 'I think my other son is with me.' It was almost like she was holding the bear up and it was like she was holding her son."

Just last spring, a fabric store clerk shared that she had recently lost her mother while she was cutting cloth for Crider, who keeps spare bears in her car for just those encounters. She brought a bear back into the store and gave it to the clerk.

"It was just such a healing moment, and that's what BearHugs is all about," she said. "It's being open to other people's lives, and they feel better. It really doesn't take a lot of money to do that. What I'm doing is very easily duplicated anywhere."

Crider regularly visits Hearthstone, a short- and long-term care nursing home in Medford, to lead circles where residents can share good memories as they pass around the animals.

"She provides a meaningful experience for our residents and for our staff," said Gail Thorpe, activity director at Hearthstone. "It provides people an opportunity to remember others, to talk about their past, to really connect to those things that bring them comfort and meaning in their lives."

Crider buys most of her bears at dollar stores and is one of a handful of people who stop in periodically to buy bears, said Ashland Dollar Tree Manager Kevin Geyer.

"I just think it's awesome," he said. "Anybody that does that kind of stuff, that's what it's all about, you know, helping each other out especially in these times."

For more information on BearHugs Foundation, call 488-0944.

Staff writer Julie French can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or jfrench@dailytidings.com.