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Vanity Bear

It’s only natural for bears to emerge out of hibernation in the spring – but usually they don’t make their way into downtown Spokane.

Gradually, over the past couple of weeks, dozens of colorfully decorated fiberglass bears have appeared on city sidewalks.

Eventually 40 life-size Kodiaks will be part of a community art project called “Bear Necessities,” initiated by the Friends of the Ronald McDonald House of Spokane.

“Bear Necessities” is a fund-raising project that hopes to generate more than $100,000 for programs that provide temporary lodging for families who travel to Spokane seeking medical care for their children.

“We were looking for a new and creative fund-raiser that would be highly visible and involve as many community partners as possible,” says Mike Forness, executive director for Ronald McDonald House.

“We saw other fund-raisers around the country that successfully used a public art project to bring various charities together with people from diverse sectors of a community,” he says.

Chicago was the first U.S. city to launch the concept in 1999. In “Cows on Parade,” 320 wacky fiberglass bovines were said to bring in $3.5 million for charities – plus an estimated $200 million worth of tourism and a million people.

Last summer in Coeur d’Alene, “No Moose Left Behind” earned more than $350,000 for the EXCEL Foundation, a nonprofit organization which supports education innovation above and beyond what school funding can provide.

While Spokane’s project is a tad bit smaller than Chicago’s, organizers hope it will generate considerable buzz and eventually money for the Ronald McDonald House at 1015 W. Fifth Ave.

In addition to providing support programs that enhance the health and well-being of children and families, the Ronald McDonald House offers 21 low-cost private family bedrooms in a home-like setting near Spokane’s hospitals.

To help get the local project off the ground, Dorothy Fowler, a Spokane sculptor and longtime Ronald McDonald House volunteer, suggested approaching Colville sculptor Jerry Kellar.

“I had just finished a smaller sitting bear called ‘Huckleberry Daze,’ ” says Kellar. “He was kind of a happy guy with a pot belly, eating in a berry patch.”

People at Ronald McDonald House like the design, but asked Keller to raise one of the bear’s paws and make it 5 1/2 feet tall by 4 1/2 feet wide.

“When I was working on the model of the full-size sculpture,” he says, “the first child to see it went right up to it and hugged it. I knew then we were onto something.”

When Kellar finished his clay model, Precision Fiberglass in Airway Heights cast and manufactured the bears.

“We are really proud that this project is completely produced with local resources,” says Forness.

Early this year, artists from throughout the Inland Northwest were asked to submit designs.

“When I saw a sketch of the bear,” says Spokane artist Marian Flahavin, “it immediately brought to mind a child’s perception of it. That led to my thinking of the fears children have of a big animal in their closet.”

Flahavin’s “Bear in My Closet” features a little girl in yellow nightgown hugging a pearlized, multicolored bear.

“Since the bear had his arm extended in a protective way,” says Flahavin, “I decided to make the bear one that is being befriended by the child and gradually warms up and melts his ferociousness when she hugs him.”

“Kids get so excited about these bears,” says Lonnie Morse, a Lions Club volunteer who has helped place more than two dozen of them.

“Once two ladies from Hawaii were watching us unload a bear,” he says. “They bought a disposable camera and wanted to know where all the other bears are located. People are having so much fun with this.”

To date 27 bears have been placed in downtown locations (see accompanying list), with about 13 more expected.

“We still need the initial corporate sponsors for some of the bears,” says Forness of Ronald McDonald House.

Eventually the bears will be sold at auction Oct. 8 at a gala event in the Davenport Hotel.

“There is such a need for funding to help families with sick children,” says volunteer Fowler.

“Parents don’t have to just return to an empty motel room after visiting their child in the hospital,” she says. “There is the Ronald McDonald House family waiting for them with open arms. That is just as important for them as helping out financially. It’s a pretty awesome house.”