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'They're the bravest bears in the world': Stuffed toys drop from the sky to lift kids' spirits

SALT LAKE CITY — David McAlhany has jumped out of an airplane nearly 1,000 times.

Every jump, he said, is exhilarating, but they don't always have as much meaning as those he experienced over Labor Day weekend.

McAlhany fought the air at 12,500 feet a little harder, as the stuffed toy bears tied to his nylon jumpsuit caused a little more air resistance.

Each bear, after bravely jumping with McAlhany and other volunteer skydivers, had a special purpose — to give sick and injured children courage.

"Luckily I didn't lose any of them," McAlhany said Thursday when he delivered 100 of the little furry jumpers to Shriners Hospitals for Children in Salt Lake City.

Twelve-year-old Bella Shelton, a Shriners patient who was born with a curved spine due to scoliosis, said stuffed animals are her thing. She was happy to add yet another face to the favorites she brought from her St. George home for her six-week stay at the hospital.

"I get homesick sometimes," Bella said, adding that all the items in her hospital room help to take away the sting of her rigorous halo treatments.

"We're so happy to be here and to get to be a part of this," said Rickell Shelton, Bella's stepmom. "She's already made so much progress."

The idea to send the bears out of an airplane came from an article McAlhany read in Parachutist magazine, which comes complementary with his monthly jump fees at Skydive Ogden.

The article highlighted a Chicago-based nonprofit called Canopies for Kids, which sends the teddy bears on a courageous journey from the ground, to the air and back again before distributing them to kids who might need a lift.

"They're the bravest bears in the world," said Eddie Simone, general manager at the Layton Applebee's restaurant, which offered customers an opportunity to participate in the fundraiser, helping cover the cost of the 10-inch-tall stuffed bears.

"Having a stuffed animal to hang onto can mean a lot to a kid," said McAlhany, of South Weber, adding that he's had some experience with that.

The Air Force reservist spent some time in the hospital as a young kid, too, after a dog bite left him with a pretty severe eye injury. After surgery to repair the tear, McAlhany's dad gave him a stuffed animal bunny.

"I'm 43 and I still have that bunny," he said. "It definitely comforted me during a hard time in my life, and that's something I'll never forget."

McAlhany took his first jump in his mid-20s, and now it's second-nature. In fact, he'd almost always rather be in the sky, though his time there goes pretty fast — about 130 mph.

"It changes you," he said of his experience in the air.

McAlhany said his perspective on life is different after seeing the world from a larger perspective.

And it turns out his experience meeting Shriners patients Thursday grounded him a bit more.

"I'm a little overwhelmed," McAlhany said, adding that he hopes to accompany hundreds more of the stuffed bears out of an airplane, just so he can see the kids' faces when they receive them.

"The smiles on their faces are so rewarding," Simone said. "Some of them don't know whether to laugh or cry. I love it."