Mossville seventh grader Taylor Larson knows firsthand what it is like to be stuck in a hospital on Valentine's Day.
Almost six years ago, she spent more than a week at the Children's Hospital of Illinois in Peoria for treatment of a ruptured appendix.
Already being at the hospital for a few days, she was planning on attending the Valentine's Day party, but started running a temperature and could not go. Instead, Rick Stephenson and 97.3 FM River Country delivered a teddy bear to her room in the second year of its annual bear drive.
"I just remember being really excited," said Larson. She still has the bear, and while she does not remember what she named it, the bear served as a source of comfort to her while at the hospital.
Taylor's mother, Carol Larson, said it was nice because parents cannot go in to testing or surgery areas, but the teddy bears can. Even teenagers who act like they do not want one still find comfort and interest in them, Carol Larson added.
Upon being released from the hospital, Taylor wrote a thank-you note to the radio station and asked what she could do to help.
That was all it took for the student to become active in the endeavor: she began collecting bears with her third-grade classmates, maybe gathering 30 or so.
As the years multiplied, so did the stuffed creatures. Last year after opening up the drive to the Chillicothe area, she collected 507 bears, double from the previous year.
She distributes the teddy bears with the radio station and hospital crew each Valentine's Day. Her whole family — mom, dad and two sisters — all have helped distribute at different times throughout the years.
About 80 to 100 patients are expected to be at the hospital on Valentine's Day this year, according to hospital spokeswoman Shelli Dankoff.
The remaining teddy bears are given out throughout the year to the young patients. Inpatients totaled 6,992 children last year, according to Dankoff. Other groups donate during the year on a smaller scale, too.
Even her grandparents from South Dakota found themselves in on the action one year: they were in charge of getting Taylor and her stuffed friends to downtown Peoria while her parents were in Hawaii.
Once Valentine's Day is over does not mean all is quiet on the bear front.
The Larson family looks for bears all year round.
Taylor spends her babysitting money on the bears, and they look for them the day after Valentine's Day when they go on clearance, and after other holidays, too.
The most important qualification for a good teddy bear, they said, is how soft the bear is. If it does not meet their touch test, they leave it on the shelf.
Page 2 of 2 - This year they found bears that have a pocket for an iPod so it can be played.
While the Larson family enjoys finding bears, Carol said it is Taylor's responsibility to do all the legwork — talking to administrators about collection places at school, other collection points, making the fliers, etc. She also created a Facebook page: 97.3 River Country Teddy Bear Drive for the Children's Hospital of Illinois.
When not collecting bears, she also plays basketball and participates in track.
Residents who want to donate a teddy bear may drop one off at several collection sites around Chillicothe by Feb. 8: IVC District 321 schools, Alco, Kroger, Paula's Hallmark, Pearce Community Center and First United Methodist Church. Taylor also will be speaking at a school assembly in Tremont and some Girl Scouts are collecting teddy bears as well.
All teddy bears must be new, with the tags on them, and not Beanie Babies. Her goal is 700 teddy bears.
"It really does make a difference. It's something really small, but it does make a difference," said Taylor.