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Susan Summerville never plans to stop serving the children of Northeast Ohio. As co-founder of Project Ed Bear, she says this volunteer organization is dear to her heart.
Eighteen years ago, Summerville received the kind of news no mother ever wants to hear: Her 11-year-old son had bone tumors. Her son, Ede Bittle, was playing football when he broke his leg and was taken to the hospital. The staff there discovered bone tumors that were later found to be non-cancerous.
Bittle saw other children suffering from cancer during his hospital stay and understood what it’s like to face the possibilities of this disease. Inspired by their experience, Bittle and his mother set out to help those whose diagnosis was not as fortunate as his.
They co-founded Project Ed Bear and started off small by delivering teddy bears (or ‘Ed Bears’) to every child diagnosed with cancer at Akron Children’s Hospital.
“Ede had a teddy bear when he was a child,” says Summerville. “It was very comforting to him. He wanted every child that had cancer to have a teddy bear too.”
Fast forward to 2012: Project Ed Bear is on the rise. Summerville works with the Ed Bear children and plans events, while the now 29-year-old Bittle serves on the organization’s board of directors and works with the graphics team for the group’s website.
This mother-son team and their volunteers work to help young children with cancer every day, and Project Ed Bear has expanded to include more than just teddy bears. The group currently delivers movies, books, games, computers and special holiday gifts to patients and even throws “after chemo” parties for them. It also awards four-year college scholarships to children with cancer or children who are cancer survivors.
Several years ago, Project Ed Bear began to sponsor Akron Children’s Hospital’s summer camp weekend for oncology/hematology patients at Camp Carl in Ravenna. After funding the camp for several years, the hospital honored Summerville and Bittle’s organization by renaming the facility Camp Ed Bear.
On the Friday night of Camp Ed Bear weekend, the children attend an ice cream party with the treats being served by many of the hospital’s oncologists. Summerville says this is a great way for the children to interact with their doctors in a fun setting, rather than a clinical one. The rest of the weekend includes swimming, laser tag, crafting, horseback riding and a dance.
Project Ed Bear also sponsors LIV THRU ART, an art therapy program inspired by and created in memory of an Ed Bear child named Olivia Ward.
“Olivia loved art,” says Summerville. “She was a child artist. I had a very close relationship with Liv. This project was a wellspring of my heart in her memory, and it serves all of our children with cancer.”
With the LIV THRU ART program, children diagnosed with cancer can choose an art medium that interests them, and then they’re paired up with a professional with expertise in that area. At the end of the year, a gallery displays the work of these incredible children.
Project Ed Bear’s main fundraiser of the year is its annual gala auction the Monday after Thanksgiving at Quaker Station in Downtown Akron. It typically draws about 700 attendees, and proceeds support the organization’s efforts. This year, the gala is Mon., Nov. 26, and Summerville describes it as “an amazingly fun evening and very emotional as well.”
The organization’s children serve as VIPs for the evening and walk the red carpet to receive their ‘Outstanding Bravery Awards’ before the auction begins. Last year’s auction had 238 items, 40 raffle baskets and oral auction items including pottery made by the Ed Bear children.
This year’s auction will include a guitar signed by all the members of the Rolling Stones, framed sheet music and a photo signed by Adele, a movie poster signed by the cast of “The Hunger Games” and more.
Looking at these events, programs, parties and camps, it’s hard to imagine that Project Ed Bear began as the small project of a young, brave child and his determined mother.
“The biggest struggle for me is continuing on with the project despite losing two of our very important Ed Bear children that I had grown to love so much,” says Summerville. “But the rewarding part of this is knowing that what we do makes a real difference in the life of a child suffering from cancer.”
/Writer Katelyn Murphy is an editorial intern with akronlife. She is a senior at KSU working on her bachelor’s in magazine journalism.