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Losing a childhood friend at a young age would leave many feeling helpless and alone. But for 14-year-old Aidan Jackson of Widnes, England, such a loss instead catalyzed a movement that would empower him and benefit his community.
Aidan's friend Olivia Walker passed away at just 15 years old from complications related to multiple severe disabilities (epilepsy, scoliosis and global developmental delay) in February 2014. After her death, Olivia's family set up a charity called the Olivia Alice Foundation to raise money for medical equipment and family support in children’s hospitals.
Aidan, who has Asperger’s syndrome himself, was determined to contribute — and began brainstorming creative ways to fundraise in honor of his late friend. Olivia had loved stuffed animals, and Aidan knew from the start that they would need to be a part of his homage.
“Aidan wanted to attempt a Guinness world record for the longest line of teddy bears,” Caroline Jackson, Aidan’s mother, told TODAY. But after doing some research, Aidan learned that the current record is held by a young boy who passed away last year. “Aidan decided not to challenge the record, so together we came up with the idea of placing teddies on each seat of our local stadium," said Jackson.
That would be the Select Stadium, home of the Widnes Vikings Rugby Club, which seats more than 13,000 people — no small undertaking.
To spread the word, the Jacksons emailed nearby schools and businesses, contacted local press, and even posted leaflets door to door. “We asked people to donate a teddy and a pound,” Aidan told TODAY. “We found that we received a lot more teddies than pounds, but I didn’t let this put me off, as I felt that raising awareness of the Olivia Alice Foundation was extremely important.”
The response from the community was powerful, with nearly 2,000 bears flooding in almost immediately. When things slowed down, the Jacksons ramped up their social media presence, tugging at heartstrings far and wide.
While every bear was appreciated, some were especially meaningful. “We had a teddy bear donated by a lady called Allison,” Aidan said. “The teddy bear was called Barnaby, and Allison had owned him from a very young age … Barnaby was 38 years old.”
He continued, “We received another teddy bear from an elderly gentleman, and the teddy is very delicate, threadbare and has a lot of character. That little teddy is my mum’s favorite.”
The final tally reached a staggering 10,500 teddy bears — and, true to his vision, Aidan set them up in Select Stadium with the help of his family and some community volunteers. “Because I have problems with my legs, I couldn't do as much as everyone else,” he said. “I wanted to keep going, but I had to rest and then seat teddies on the lower levels of the stadium so I didn't have to go up and down all the steps.”
But nothing could take away the pride from the result. “The best part was looking round the stadium to see all the colors brightening everywhere up,” Aidan said.
For Caroline Jackson, the pride was different: that of seeing her son turn lemons into lemonade. “Watching Aidan as he was being interviewed by local press and being able to see how much confidence the Teddy Bear Challenge has given him made me so proud,” she said.
“We should all do something every day that makes us feel proud,” Jackson added.
Aidan hopes others will feel similarly empowered by his story. “No matter how hard things might be," he said, "you can take on a challenge and see it through if you put your mind to it and have support.
This story was first published on October 12, 2016.