Bright, hand-colored paper bears were tacked to the trees in Liberty Park, marking the way to Lincoln Elementary School's first Teddy Bear Picnic last week.
In the shade by the tables, third, fourth and sixth grade students greeted their honored guests: A dozen men and women who have AIDS, spending a weekday afternoon in the park with new friends. Everyone brought a teddy bear."Lots of people do nice things for us," said Lori Smith, client services director for the Utah AIDS Foundation. "But this is the first time an outside place has hosted a party for our clients. It was wonderful. Many of our clients don't have much opportunity to be with people outside the group. They loved the kids and were thrilled about the whole thing."
The children decorated caps to block the sun (some medications make people who have AIDS photosensitive) and distributed activity booklets. They ate Gummy Bears, Teddy Grahams, bread and honey, donated sandwiches, berries, whatever a bear - and people of all ages - would find appealing. And watermelon. Because as 12-year-old Rachel McNeill said, "Who doesn't like watermelon?"
Volunteer hocus-pocus master "Harry Schudini" worked a little magic on the crowd, before they broke into little groups to play games, read stories with a - what else? - teddy bear theme and just visit.
About two hours into the party, a little girl walked up to extended learning program teacher Karen Nicksich and asked, "When are the people with AIDS coming?"
"It was great. (Students) got to see they are no different than anyone else. We formed a lot of nice friendships," Nicksich said.
The picnic in the park sounds easy; it was anything but.
The students began working back in February to plan the event, forming committees and assigning tasks like inviting guests, coming up with a meal they could afford, making decorations and signs and arranging for the use of a picnic table in the park. The students, most in the third and fourth grades, wrote out scripts to help them make phone calls to arrange things. They wrote letters, news releases, thank you notes. They even took a field trip to Northwest Pipeline to consult a health and fitness instructor about games and activities that would be fun but not too taxing for people with AIDS.
Some students, like Lessey Wentworth, 9, and Kendra Vanbeuge, 8, put their energy into making potpourri bears (lots of cloth and a hot glue gun, Wentworth said) and putting up signs in the park the day of the event.
Others printed up a program, made name tags and solicited food donations from local businesses. Several students from the Bennion Center at the University of Utah served as consultants, mentors and co-workers on the project. Parents helped out, too. In all, 60 people showed up for the picnic.
The children wanted to learn not to be afraid of AIDS. And they wanted to do poetry and art in the park with new friends. The picnic was also a natural extension of the bond formed at Christmas time when the school's classes adopted the Utah AIDS Foundation and provided gifts and food.
"It just sounded fun and it was a day out of school," giggled Tresa Rose, one of the 12-year-olds who helped the younger students organize. She said she was a little nervous at first; she didn't know what people with AIDS would be like. "They're no different," she concluded.
McNeill wasn't nervous. One of her cousins had AIDS; she loved him.
"If you just saw someone walking down the street with AIDS, you wouldn't know. It doesn't matter. We're all pretty much the same on the inside."
So why teddy bears?
"They're lovable, the friendliest things. And they're strong," McNeill said.
Like the bear hugs that ended the party.