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Disabled Central Texas veteran, wife, have a mission: Find homes for bags of bears, dolls, and stuffed animals

Updated: Jun. 11, 2021 at 5:06 PM CDT
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KILLEEN, Texas (KWTX) - More than a few kids in Central Texas, around the state and beyond go to bed clutching a treasured stuffed bear or a doll or perhaps a unicorn or a dog, thanks to a disabled Killeen veteran and his wife who have made in their mission for 41 years to bring smiles to young faces.

Russ Coburn, 80, and his wife, Ann, 79, passed 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 children there and we were in the parking lot, and we randomly handed them out as children came out,” Russ said.

“It went pretty fast, and I said, ‘well that didn’t work very well.’”

That changed quickly.

The Coburns started to keep an eye out throughout the year for stuffed animals--mostly bears--and dolls that were on sale, and when the price was right, they bought them.

“Oh, my goodness, we jumped up from 12 to 50 to a hundred, and these last eight or 10 years it’s been 500 or more every year,” he said.

Russ says they’ve donated the stuffed boys to a number of groups over the years including the Goodwill, the Salvation Army and a soup kitchen in Killeen.

But they also hand the furry friends out to individual children, and they have stories to tell about how the gifts brightened the youngsters’ lives.

“I get emails, and some are in Europe and around the country and they say, ‘thank you my child still won’t go to be without his bear and he’s 8-years old,’” Russ said.

Russ was moved to tears as he talked about giving a stuffed bear to a crying toddler recently at a Walgreens store.

“There was a young lady, and she had a little toddler, and she was on the phone and kept hollering at that child because he wanted things,” Russ said.

“I told Ann ‘I’m going out to the truck’ because I had some big bears out there.”

Russ waited until the mother and the toddler left the store, then he approached their car and knocked on the window.

“I said ‘I’ve got a bear for the little boy. I see he’s upset,’ and he jumped out and grabbed me by the leg and didn’t want to get back in the car and he brought tears to my eyes.”

Over the last few years, the couple has been able to collect nearly 800 stuffed animals and dolls.

At times, local stores helped out.

“We try and get them when they’re on sale after a holiday or something. Some stores have even called us when they were ready to put on sale,” Russ said.

But Russ’ health has declined, which has slowed the couple down.

And instead of putting the stuffed toys on sale, stores lately have been holding back the inventory for the next holiday season, he says.

Then COVID-19 hit.

The pandemic halted the couple’s effort because groups and organizations were reluctant to accept donations while the virus was still spreading.

Bears stacked up at the couple’s house until this past week when the Coburns found a home for 225 of them at the Killeen Police Department.

“I figured they could hand them out when they take a call that involves kids,” Russ said.

Russ retired at Fort Hood in 2012 after 50 years and nine months of military and civilian service, but when it comes to stuffed bears and such, he and his wife say they have no plans to retire anytime soon.

“We always have this feeling about children and caring for children,” Russ said.

“We get a bigger bang out of it than the kids. I mean the feeling, seeing that joy. It’s just great,” he said.

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