My friend Pooh was always destined to fly. My husband adopted him for me on our first anniversary, noting that I needed someone to keep an eye on me when I was travelling. In nearly 13 years since then, he’s been a bear who ‘gets about a bit’, a bear who’s not bothered by rub-down searches or life in the overhead locker. He’s a fearless little fella but he was somewhat taken aback when we challenged him to jump off a high place in the interests of proving his bravery and raising money for charity.
It came about by pure fluke. My husband and I went to visit my parents in Salisbury for the long weekend of the Royal Wedding. Walking through the Cathedral Close I spotted a poster advertising a charity fundraiser with a difference. The Salisbury Hospitals ‘Stars Appeal’ raises money for kids who are treated by the local hospitals and one of their key events is a now annual Teddy Bear Parachuting day. I was tickled by the idea and volunteered my little friend. With only two weeks to raise money we set him a target of £40 and made him a justgiving page to facilitate donations. There’s no fee for your bear to jump but each bear has to raise £10 in order to qualify for the event.
Prior to seeing the poster I’d not heard of Teddy Bear Parachuting – or ‘parafauna’ as I learned it’s sometimes called (there’s a page on Wikipedia for literally everything these days). Bears are an inclusive bunch and don’t mind other soft toys joining them in their sport. Watch out for para-dinosaurs, para-dogs, para-Hello Kitties and we even saw a para-Yoda at our event floating down after a para-Disney princess.
Events vary in format depending on where they are held. In the Salisbury Cathedral version, they use a high-reach cherry-picker platform belonging to the local fire brigade and volunteer firemen turn out to help with the event. In some places bears are launched off church towers and there are even events where light aircraft or kites are used to put teds into the air.
Some of you may be wondering why anyone would choose to do something so stupid and what’s in it for the organizers. I spoke to one of the people from the Stars Appeal and he said that the Ted Jump is not one of their biggest fund raisers but it’s the one that gets the most local kids involved. Since their whole purpose is to raise funds for children, it’s a great event for raising awareness amongst young people and their parents. The Salisbury event asks for a minimum sponsorship of £10 per bear but, most bears will raise more than the £10 target.
On the big day we headed into Salisbury with Pooh and his support crew in my mother’s spare old-lady trolley. We passed through the Cathedral Close a couple of hours before the event was due to start and saw the lifting platforms and watched the organisers setting up the tents for registration, parachute fitting and so on. We showed Pooh the Cathedral and the crane, thinking that it was probably better that he be mentally prepared for the challenge to come. And then we went for lunch. The event ran between 1 pm and 4 pm but the organisers were asking people not to all turn up at 1 o’clock because there would be delays if everyone wanted to jump at the same time. Being obedient and helpful souls we rolled up at about 2.30 pm. I took Pooh to register, handing over a print out of his Justgiving page as well as £15 in cash that he’d been given. We were given his jump voucher then went to the stall where they had spare labels and wrote one up with his name and my mum’s phone number on it. Last year a few bears got separated from their humans and there was quite a bit of upset. One woman told us she had to take off across the grass at great speed when someone went off with her son’s bear.
The next step was parachute fitting. We handed him and his voucher to the fitters who weighed him up and chose a white parachute as being the best option. It’s important that your bear doesn’t get the wrong sized chute; too small and he’ll fly like a brick, too big and he could be 15 miles away before he’s back to earth. Once the parachutes are fitted – using rubber bands around their arms – the bears go into laundry baskets to wait for the crane.
We headed off to set up the ‘Team Pooh’ support centre on the perimeter of the jump field. His brothers Alfie and Ralfie were propped up on against the trolley with their banners reading ‘Jump Pooh!’ Surprisingly he seemed to be the only bear to bring cheerleaders. Equally he seemed to be the only bear without a child companion. We watched a batch of jumpers, gasping as one purple elephant got his parachute caught in the firemen’s ladders, laughing as a few jumped onto the roof of the fire engine, and worrying a little when some small bears got caught by the wind and were blown off track. Teddy Medics in white coats ran around the field trying to catch the bears so they wouldn’t hurt themselves on landing.
Pooh and his companions went up in the lift and we waited. Hello Kittie leaped and became ‘Goodbye Kittie’. A panda drifted gently to earth. Yoda and the Disney princess followed a massive T-rex in their descent and eventually – last of the bunch – Pooh prepared to jump. The Fireman threw him in the air, the chute failed to open and he plunged to the earth like a school science project to prove the existence of gravity. We were so disappointed; the little fella didn’t have a chance. Alfie and Ralfie giggled unsympathetically.
I went to collect Pooh and told the parachute fitters that his parachute hadn’t opened. "Then he must try again" said the volunteer. "This time we’ll give him a bigger parachute". And so Pooh went again. Once again he was the last one out. I’d like to think that the Firemen recognised his importance and were trying to save the best until last. I suspect he was clinging onto the laundry basket and refusing to jump. Eventually he appeared on the platform. The fireman gave him a ‘Not this one again’ look and launched him off the top. This time all went well. His parachute opened and he glided gently down and was caught by the Teddy Medic. Honour had been served. We collected him and went to get his ‘Certificate of Bravery’.
If you find yourself tempted to put your bear or bears through something similar, please take note of the following tips. I noticed that bears with big heads do better than bears that are bottom-heavy. If your bear is weighted in the bum (like Pooh is) he will parachute in a vertical position. If your bear’s arms are nearer the centre of gravity, he or she will float horizontal which seems to slow them down a bit. Don’t take a bear that’s desperately precious or very delicate – your 100 year old Steiff is not a suitable candidate. Bears must have no hard parts and must be entirely soft – I guess this is for the protection of the Medics who don’t want to be hit by a hard object falling at great speed. If the weather looks really nasty or the ground is muddy, choose a machine washable volunteer. Bears need to be – in the words of Goldilocks – not too big and not too small. Event organisers will advise on ideal sizes. Titchy bears might get lost and the 6 foot monster bear will not fit on the platform unless he replaces one of the firemen and they probably won’t have a big enough parachute. We went to the Cathedral’s café with the bears for a celebratory hot chocolate and a bit of boasting. As we sat in the glass roofed building my husband shouted "Look" and we watched a small bear sail over the roof and off to who-knows-where. We laughed – but I felt pretty worried for his family.
Finally I’d like to thank the lovely members of this site who supported Pooh for his jump and if anyone else feels the urge, his donation page is still open at www.justgiving/para-pooh.