“We just want kids to be kids,” says Kathleen A. Casey, Founder and CEO of Bear Necessities. “We want to give them that opportunity to feel special and feel like they don’t have to think about cancer for a little bit.” Bear Necessities Pediatric Cancer Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit providing resources for children with cancer throughout Illinois and the greater Midwest.
Named in honor of Casey’s son, Barrett “Bear” Krupa, Bear Necessities was conceived by Casey in collaboration with friends and family to improve the lives of children with cancer. “[My son] said, ‘Let’s just do stuff for kids like me, let’s see what we can do to make a difference,’” Casey recalls. Barrett was diagnosed with a Wilms tumor—“What was supposed to be the most curable form of pediatric cancer,” according to Casey—at just age three. After five-and-a-half years battling cancer, Barrett passed away in January of 1993. “Of course, we hoped he would be here to help us continue on in his dream, but he really instilled in us that we need to make a difference for these kids,” Casey says.
Twenty-seven years later, Bear Necessities continues to uphold Barrett’s dream to make life a little bit easier for children like him through things like their Bear Hugs program, which provides gifts or experiences to children with cancer, as well as through the Bear Discoveries program, which provides funding for necessary childhood cancer research. “We want to get to the point where we cure [childhood cancer], but in the meantime, we want to try to bring a little bit of joy and happiness into these kids’ lives,” Casey says. “They’re innocent children; they really shouldn’t have to be going through this at this time in their lives.”
A Bear Hug can look however the child receiving the experience imagines it. A young girl might want a makeover, so Bear Necessities will provide a day of pampering for her and a friend or loved one. Another child might want to go fishing on Lake Michigan or meet a childhood hero. “Our sports teams are so incredible for us; they go above and beyond,” Casey says. A Bear Hug could be tickets to see a game followed by a meet-and-greet with a pro-athlete. “It just gives them that opportunity to be themselves for a day and not have to be sitting in a hospital room,” she says. Some children want laptops or gaming systems; one child wanted to swim with dolphins. “They’re so fun, they’re so unique, and it really breaks that monotony […] It doesn’t take a lot to bring hope and joy into these kids’ lives and that’s what we intend to do through the Bear Hugs program,” Casey says.
While Bear Necessities provides once-in-a-lifetime experiences to almost 400 children each year (“That’s about the number of kids that are diagnosed in Illinois,” says Casey), they’re also funding cutting-edge research. It’s a good thing, too, because only 4 percent of federal cancer research dollars goes toward treating childhood cancers. “[This is] critical, because they’re not getting the money from our federal government, so the only place this money is coming from are organizations like Bear Necessities,” Casey says. “The biggest goal is how can we eliminate pediatric cancer, but that not being in the foreseeable, immediate future, [our goal is] how can we make therapies less toxic?”
This isn’t the only gap Bear Necessities is working to fill. Their chapter in Naples, Florida supports Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida, “the only hospital between Tampa and Miami that treats kids with cancer,” according to Casey. Bear Necessities conducts their Bear Hugs program here, as well as fundraising efforts. She mentions that throughout Bear Necessities’ 27-year history, many donors have relocated to Southwest Florida, and are pleased with the opportunity to continue to be involved. “It’s a nice place to really help out, because it’s definitely one of those hospitals that’s making a big difference in an area that desperately needs it,” Casey says.
Back in Chicago, Bear Necessities hosts four events each year to raise money for their programs. As well, upwards of fifty smaller events are held each year with proceeds donated to Bear Necessities. And anyone with charitable inclinations is able to get involved: “If anyone wants to help in a small way, they can simply hold a bake sale [or] a car wash,” Casey says. “That’s a wonderful way to help our organization, through small events like that. […] We are very fortunate to live in the Chicago area where people are truly giving, and really want to make a difference, and want to make things better in their communities.”
For the future, Casey shares that Bear Necessities will continue to raise awareness and funds for childhood cancer. “Their childhoods are being taken away from them, so we want to be able to do whatever we can,” Casey says. “As a parent [who has] lost a child, it started off [with] the person who brought us a sandwich from home instead of having to eat hospital food. It was that special.” For another 27 years and beyond, Bear Necessities will continue to inspire hope and bring joy to families affected by childhood cancer—one special moment at a time.