Local families go on a 'bear hunt'

Jessie DeRose, with Ugly Mug Coffee & Cafe, sets up one of the stuffed bears on display at the Lenoir City business.

Since Thursday, local residents have likely seen stuffed animals of various sizes in yards, porches and windows.

The inaugural Lenoir City/Loudon County Bear Hunt will go through April 5, but Rachel Browder, co-coordinator, said some families began participating in the scavenger hunt as early as March 24.

“A group of teachers and I saw a video on social media in which teachers from another city went on a parade around the neighborhoods to see their students,” Browder said in an email correspondence. “I mentioned to another, Chrystal Williams, that I had seen where a neighborhood had a bear hunt for the kids. She and I began planning one for our community. I created the social media group and Chrystal began contacting friends in surrounding neighborhoods to see if they were interested.”

Browder and Williams teach for Lenoir City Schools.

A social media group for the hunt was created March 22 and within two days membership ballooned to more than 700. As of Monday there were 2,203 members.

“The number of members is very surprising,” Browder said. “This community loves our kids and wants something positive to focus their energy on. It’s not often you get that kind of response to a community event in two days. ... The goal behind this event is to bring some hope and positive vibes to our little community. This event provides a safe activity that families can do from their vehicles — just drive around with the windows down and look for bears — and other animals.”

More than 95 businesses and 115 streets/neighborhoods have participated, Browder said. In addition, families were treated to at least 600 stuffed animals hidden around Lenoir City and Loudon County.

Kari Jett made it a point to take her two children, Sydney and Carter, out for the hunt Thursday.

“You didn’t have to get out of the car or be in personal contact with any people and I thought it was just a really good idea,” Jett said. “I made it competition between the kids because they’re always competing against each other anyway, so they just had their piece of paper and pencil and they would tally mark every time they saw a bear. Of course, there were houses that had different bears in the same house, but they had their own side of the road. My daughter rode in the passenger seat, my son rode in the back behind me, so they had each side of their road and they counted their bears and my son won.”

The two located more than 400 bears.

“I think at one point my son was like, ‘I think I’m going to hit 100 bears,’ and then he surpassed it to the point of 200 and he was really just shocked that he had found that many,” Jett said. “Yeah, I think the further we went we were pretty shocked we found that many. ... We did not even put a dent in the list. We didn’t really go by the list. We just kind of went where we thought would have the most places, but I know there’s tons more places that have bears set out.”

The hunt was an opportunity for Jett to get her children out of the house and off electronics.

“I definitely think everybody is just rallying around and doing what they can to lift everybody’s spirit and give people an opportunity to be able to get out into the community and support one another during this hard time,” Jett said. “It’s hard, and you just go to bring a little joy into everybody’s life and it’s a good way of giving, especially for the kids. Whether they say it out loud or not, I think they miss school. I work at Eaton (Elementary School). I know I miss my kids terribly that I work with.”

The offices for Loudon County Clerk Carrie McKelvey and Loudon County Property Assessor Michael Campbell embraced the hunt with stuffed animals outside the Loudon County Courthouse Annex.

“There’s a lot of stress in the community right now so I thought it’d be a way to uplift some spirits,” McKelvey said. “I thought it’d be a fun idea to get the kids interactive in something like that. ... Gets them off of TVs and the screens and get them outside and enjoy the sunshine. It gives them something to do and look forward to.”

Jessie DeRose, Ugly Mug Coffee & Cafe manager, helped set up a drink in the paw of one of the business’ stuffed bears outside.

“It absolutely gives the family something to do to get them out of the house, drive around, especially with the weather being so nice. It’s great,” DeRose said. “One thing that this community does is I feel like they get so involved in community events and I love seeing all the response that it’s actually received.”

DeRose learned of the hunt through a friend on social media. The number of people who joined the group was a surprise.

“Just goes to show how much they crave something to do, I suppose,” she said.

Browder said the hunt could become a yearly event.

“It’s a celebration of family, hope, our community and our support for each other,” she said. “... A few of us have been thinking about some more activities for families. That’s what we do as teachers — love children, love families — encourage each other.”

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