Skydiving involves jumping out of a moving plane at over 14,000 ft and there's no-one who can say that doesn't require a certain amount of bravery and courage. It is that bravery needed that the Canopies for Kids team is trying to give to sick children in hospital in Chicago, Illinois.
Founder Matt Kuikman explains that Canopies for Kids is "a nonprofit that enlists the help of skydivers to take stuffed teddy bears on the dive with them." Once these bears have jumped with their human companion, "we position them as the bravest stuffed teddy bears in the world and give them to children at Lurie's Children's hospital here in Chicago to help them through their tough times."
The idea for Canopies for Kids came to Kuikman after he'd been part of a benefit for children in Indianapolis. The experience, he says, "was just a very moving, touching experience that really stuck with me," and made him want to do more to help children in hospital.
After he graduated from college, Kuikman decided he wanted a "fun side project just to get involved with" so he "started formulating the idea of doing something for the benefit of a children's hospital, something local to where I'm from, so Chicago."
When it came to thinking about what to do to help these children, he tried to bring together his interests. He explains that skydiving, which he had first done while in college, "jumped out and the rest just merged together."
He thought about the idea carefully but it wasn't until he ran into his co-founder, Taryn McKay, with whom he had gone to elementary school, that the idea began to grow. McKay was herself a fan of skydiving and knew of a drop-zone not too far from Chicago from which they could jump start the program.
Officially launched in Spring of 2012, Canopies for Kids is a very new program but it has already formed a strong partnership with the Lurie Children's Hospital where they send the bears that have completed their jumps.
The process is simple. A skydiver who goes to Skydive Midwest, just over the border in Wisconsin, has the chance to purchase a $20 package on top of their jump fee. This package not only includes the cost of the bear, a card, and the harness needed to attach the bear to the diver, but it also includes a $5 donation to the hospital.
Kuikman explains that they thought that "you could just jump and have people donate to the children's hospital but that doesn't really resonate with a sick kid in the hospital. What resonates is something that's going to help them when they go through tests and scary moments."
This led them to the idea of using a teddy bear, something to comfort children in their times of need: "we figured a teddy bear would be perfect. It's small, it's easy, it's fluffy, we can attach it to the skydiving harness."
Kuikman explains that the bear is "something they can relate to. It's something they can keep with them in the hospital when they're scared and when they need some courage and bravery and that's why we position the bears as the bravest stuffed teddy bears in the world."
The bear has its own 'flight suit' in the form of a plastic bag, all to keep the bear as clean as possible before it gets to the hospital and is attached to the skydiver using a velcro harness. Once the skydiver has jumped and landed safely, they can write a card to the child that will be sent with the bear.
The card can be used by the skydivers to send their best wishes to the children but also to try to communicate the feelings and emotions involved in jumping out of a plane. It lets the child know that someone is thinking about them and emphasizes the idea of the bear's bravery.
The bears are then sent to the Lurie Children's Hospital where they are given out to the children who want them. When Kuikman and McKay visited the hospital for the first time to see the children receive the bears, the bears were given out as prizes in the weekly game of 'safety bingo' put on for the children to enjoy.
More than just fluffy bears, these skydiving teddy bears provide the children with a companion who will be with them throughout their procedures, in times of illness, and through their recovery. The bear's bravery and courage will become the child's as well as a symbol throughout everything.
Kuikman's idea, which started from an enjoyment of skydiving and a desire to help children, has become much more than just about skydiving. It is giving children a very special and powerful idea to hold onto in their toughest times.
"There's something I can do to personally impact and make their stay at that hospital and their life a little brighter, a little less scary and just give them a little courage that comes from transforming a normal teddy bear into a symbol of bravery for them. It gives me a sense of satisfaction, that I made a difference in the world."