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Their Main Squeeze : Jo Lindberg Believes the Bearhugs She Gives Are Healing the Hearts of the Elderly

March 14, 1995|JIM WASHBURN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Jo Lindberg ambles as she walks down the hospital corridor, because bears amble. She is a 6-foot light brown furry bear, whom none of the elderly patients of the Senior Mental Health Program of the Fountain Valley Regional Hospital can escape.

Approached from behind, one surprised woman sitting in a wheelchair and wearing a floral hat blurts, "My God, what are you!?"

"I'm Cuddles, the Huggy Bear," Lindberg answers in a chipper, slightly cartoon-like voice. "We're celebrating hug day today. Would you like a little hug, Mildred?"

The woman's face brightens, and she gets a furry hug.

On to a patient in bed, who exclaims, "Oh, Cuddles, I've been hearing about you."

"Have you had your hug today?" asks the bear.

"No."

"Well I brought you a big old bear hug. Would you like it?"

A big old bear hug ensues.

"I love this. I love it," the woman weeps. "You've got a wonderful hug."

The bear replies, "Well I'm the ambassador of hugs. I'll tell you, it's a rough job hugging you humans, but someone's got to do it."

*

"I'm roasting in here!" Lindberg said from inside her bear outfit. Once out of it, she's seven inches shorter, and her Hugs for Health tank-top and bike shorts were drenched in sweat. Even wearing an ice-laden "cool vest," she can take only an hour in-costume before risking heat exhaustion.

The 33-year-old created Cuddles the Huggy Bear as a singing hug-gram deliverer in 1983. She describes herself as an entrepreneurial spirit who as a kid had gone door-to-door hawking greeting cards. At 22 she was looking to go into business for herself.

"I had taken workshops, and every motivational speaker said, 'If you can find something that you love to do and do well, you can be successful at it.' And I love to hug. During one of these workshops at a coffee break, I was talking to someone and said, 'I wish I could do something with hugs,' and jokingly she said, 'You can deliver them.'

"Three months later I was in business doing that. I was an avid reader of People magazine and would imagine myself in their Up and Coming section as the Billion-Dollar Bear," Lindberg recalled.

It hasn't worked out that way. Two years into her business, a client got her to visit a care facility, "and that was it. I was touched by a woman who I hugged who broke down and sobbed in my arms because she said it had been so very long since anyone had given her a hug. I was hooked. Within five months I was visiting 20 facilities a week," she said.

Eventually Lindberg found she was visiting hospitals and convalescent homes to the neglect of her business, and she nearly went bankrupt. For a time she took graveyard-shift jobs so she could afford to continue her visits. Since 1989, her Orange-based Hugs for Health Foundation has had nonprofit status, enabling her to seek grants and donations.

Visiting facilities in Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, the self-described hug therapist gives some 3,000 hugs a month. She's worn out three sets of hand-pads on her 5-year-old bear costume, which, after some 180,000 hugs, is looking a tad mangy overall despite regular cleanings with upholstery cleaner.

It's her third costume, a professionally made, $2,000 one with a head shell made of soft foam, unlike the un-cuddly hard plastic heads of some bear mascots, she points out. She has photos of an earlier Cuddles costume she'd made herself, which she correctly describes as looking more like an owl than a bear. She explained, "I had no idea how to make a pattern, so I laid down on paper and traced my shape."

In addition to her visits as Cuddles, Lindberg leads volunteer Hug Patrols, visiting care facilities to hug residents en masse. To spread her creed that hugs "nurture the human spirit promoting a more positive outlook thus enhancing the quality of one's life," she also leads hug therapy workshops, publishes the Embrace America newsletter, has a Hug Booth at the Orange County Fair every year (where she once gave 600 hugs in a day) and holds community Hug-Ins.

The next Hug-In is March 18 at the Park Superior Care Center in Newport Beach, where she hopes to break the previous Hugs for Health record of 145 volunteer huggers. For that, and its other activities, the Hugs for Health Foundation can be reached at (714) 832-HUGS.

Lindberg can cite university studies and research papers on the benefits of touch for patients but mainly relies on her very hands-on experience. Watching her visit the elderly inpatients and outpatients at the Fountain Valley facility, the brightening effect she had on them was apparent. Of the thousands she has visited, she says, there have been only a few resistant to her hugs.

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