In the News

Lucky 13: Penny Bear celebrates “amazing, magical years”

Adapted  from an article by Kris Olson, Editor, Marblehead Reporter, July 2008

Penny Wigglesworth (background in photo) and the rest of her volunteer Penny Bear workers will celebrate 13 “amazing, magical years” during August at 6 Elmwood Road, Marblehead, Wigglesworth’s home, the basement of which has long since been “bear country.”
Thirteen an unlucky number? Never, says Penny Wigglesworth, but then, you would expect nothing less from the self-proclaimed “dreamer” whose unfailing optimism has propelled the Penny Bear Workshop to some amazing places over that span of years.

The Penny Bear Workshop has its origins in Wigglesworth’s service as a hospice worker. Back in 1995, she was paired with Seth Bailey, a 16-year-old boy who had been battling cancer since age 3. When Wigglesworth met Bailey, he weighed all of 65 pounds and his doctors had given him three months to live.

Together, Wigglesworth and Bailey decided to use their thrice-weekly meetings to start a non-profit company — buying bears, selling bears and giving them away. Their initial shipment was 30 bears.

“We thought that was huge,” Wigglesworth said with a laugh while seated amid just a portion of the shipment of 5,000 stuffed animals she recently received.

Bailey would defy the odds, helping to see the Penny Bear Workshop through its first year of operation. “We met in August, he died in August,” Wigglesworth noted, explaining why she and others had long ago decided that they would have to plan something special (an open house celebration) for Aug. 8, 2008 (8-8-08).

Bailey still very much inspires the Penny Bear Workshop’s efforts, and the connection continues in tangible ways, too. Just this past Monday, Bailey’s mother came to help prepare a shipment of 50 Penny Bears to the Ronald McDonald House in Brookline, thus honoring two institutions near and dear to her heart.

Don't Call It A Business

To call the Penny Bear Workshop a “business” would miss the mark, however. Wigglesworth noted that a Harvard Business School student once expressed an interest in working with her. With ever-present twinkle in her eye, she politely told him that would not be possible. Seeing his confusion, she said, “Ask me some questions.” So he did — about the company’s “five-year plan” and other things his professors had no doubt assured him were essential to a business’ survival. After frustrating him with a few answers, the student finally caught on, and Wigglesworth got the concession she knew would come. “‘You’re right,’” he said, ‘We can’t work together,’” Wigglesworth recalled.

A nd yet, despite the lack of a five-year plan, the Penny Bear Workshop has endured longer than many a venture that has expended great effort to turn a profit. The Workshop has never held a fundraiser, instead relying on sales of its products and donations to be able to continue its charitable efforts.

“The money just comes,” Wigglesworth said appreciatively.

A New Face

Not that there haven’t been challenges. A most recent one came when, as of last October, the Penny Bear Workshop’s manufacturer decided to stop making its bears. Wigglesworth said she briefly considered “retirement” but knew that too many people would never let her make such a move. So the challenge became finding a new fuzzy face of the company

.On a visit to Naples, Fla., Wigglesworth said the perfect face “just popped out at me.” The bear turned out to be manufactured by Gund, a well-respected manufacturer of children’s toys.

While her search had ended, Wigglesworth’s decision to go with Gund brought with it a couple of other dilemmas. The manufacturer required Wigglesworth to take delivery of no less than 5,000 of the 16-inch bears. The cost was not so much of a problem — again, the money just “came” — but then there was the practical issue of where to store all the crates of the critters. Thankfully, her son volunteered to store a good portion of the order, Wigglesworth reported.

But the move to Gund will also, sadly, bring to an end a couple of time-honored Penny Bear traditions. Each of the now-retired bears was shipped with a “lucky penny” in its pocket from which it took its name. For safety reasons, Wigglesworth had to pledge to discontinue this practice, though the name “Penny Bear” has been stitched into each bear’s right foot.

Also for safety reasons, the company required the bears to be produced with permanently attached attire. Over its first 13 years, Penny Bears had come adorned with sweaters knit in a variety of colors by volunteers. Now, each bear will sport a similarly colored sweater — Wigglesworth and crew chose a bright royal blue with a rainbow heart for 2008 — and the company’s current “stock” of hand-knit sweaters will be provided free to current Penny Bear owners at the open houses. In addition, 13 of the new Penny Bears will be raffled off.

Where the bears go

Many of the rest of the 5,000 bears will eventually head off, free of charge, to where they are needed most. Photos affixed to poster board blanketing the walls of the workshop in Wigglesworth’s basement depict just some of the earlier bears’ far-flung new homes. The zip codes may vary, but the photo collages share one thing: Smiles are omnipresent.

Hospitals and shelters are perhaps the most frequent Penny Bear destinations, but the bears have also been dispatched to the Gulf states in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, to West Virginia and Utah after the coal-mining tragedies there, and to Paducah, Ky., and Columbine, Colo., after the school shootings in those communities. The bears have also gone overseas, to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, with local Rotarians on a mission to Guatemala and to an orphanage in Haiti, just to name a few.

The company also provides “Hunter Bears,” named after Hunter Craig, the victim of a fatal car crash in October 1999, to those who obtain their licenses at Marblehead High School as a reminder to drive safely. Wigglesworth assures that, even with the move to Gund, she has a stash of Hunter bears that will allow the program to continue.

Efforts expand

Though distributing bears remains central to its focus, over the years, the Penny Bear Workshop has come to do far more, including publish books. Among the workshop’s earliest volunteers was Michiko Eager, a native of Yokohama, Japan, who was attending college in Boston. Though she had no formal art training, Eager had always dreamt that she would one day illustrate a children’s book. When she read Wigglesworth’s text for “Penny Bear’s Gift of Love,” she knew she had found her project.

Since then, Eager has collaborated with volunteer Marilyn Freeman on a pair of children’s activity books and also illustrated personal journals for use by several hundred critically ill campers at the Double "H" Ranch summer camp in Lake Luzerne, N.Y., Camp Sunshine in South Casco, Maine, and Camp MerryTimes in Hendersonville, N.C., along with Marblehead-based NANCamp. The books are now very much part of the Penny Bear Company’s “product line,” raising both funds and, perhaps more importantly, spirits.

Eager will among the special guests at the August open house, during which her colorful original artwork will be available for sale. Eager will be joined by authors Karla Wheeler, whose Naples, Fla.-based Quality of Life Publishing Company published Wigglesworth’s book and sales of whose book “Afterglow” benefit the Penny Bear Workshop, and Elissa Al-Chokhachy, who wrote “The Angel With the Golden Glow” with the encouragement of the Penny Bear organization.

The Penny Bear Workshop is also the “hub” for what became known as the “Circles of Hope,” support groups for people “whose lives have been affected by cancer, Parkinson’s disease and care-giving responsibilities, or who are experiencing a life transition during a time of bereavement,” explains the company’s Web site,

The cancer support group has spun off into Sue’s Circle of Hope, named for Sue de Vries, which now has its own headquarters at 76 Lafayette St., Salem. Wigglesworth is proud that the Penny Bear Workshop could serve as a “stepping stone” for Sue’s Circle, and that “someone else’s dream is now up and running, too.”

No shortage of help

Freeman, whom Wigglesworth calls “the wind beneath my wings,” facilitates the Parkinson’s support group, which meets the second and fourth Monday of each month and counts Wigglesworth among its members. Freeman also created the butterfly garden in Wigglesworth’s backyard as a peaceful oasis for quiet reflection and daily performs countless unglamorous behind-the-scenes task to keep the Penny Bear Workshop on track.

“I’m the dreamer; she gets things done,” said Wigglesworth.

Others have been welcomed into the fold as well. Gail Kobialka will be at the open houses to explain the Reiki offerings she brings to the Penny Bear Workshop’s regular wellness days. Wigglesworth notes that a couple of male members of the Parkinson’s support group had been skeptical about Reiki’s benefits but were quickly converted.

After finishing with Kobialka, they would say, “I don’t think I have Parkinson’s anymore,” according to Wigglesworth.

Patti White has brought an expertise in journaling to the Penny Bear Workshop’s efforts, while Tai Streff served as director of the “touring cast” of the Penny Bear Players. The list could go on and on. There are many other Penny Bear “friends,” like Sally Miller, who could be found Tuesday morning sipping tea in Wigglesworth kitchen.

Spying the Penny Bear without which Wigglesworth would not let this reporter leave, Miller remarked, “Nobody leaves here alone,” perhaps unwittingly creating the company’s new slogan. But then again, magical moments of inspiration are par for the course at the Penny Bear Workshop.

In the News 2006

Marblehead Chamber of Commerce
Penny Wigglesworth and the Penny Bear Company
the 2006 Rey Moulton
Person of the Year Award!

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