Remembering 9/11 teddy bears

By Jane Flanagan

Downtown Express photo by Akiko Miyazaki

Sue Lucarelli in her classroom.

A new play, “September Bears,” is coming to St. Paul’s Chapel, a fitting site for the performance that chronicles the story of a 9/11 volunteer who worked at the chapel during the recovery. But the volunteer, a New York City school teacher, is perhaps best known as the “bear lady,” who distributed 60,000 teddy bears to mourning New Yorkers. The play was written by a professor at a small Iowa Christian college and will be performed by its professional touring company.

Sue Lucarelli, 61, a teacher at the Churchill School on East 29th St., was in her classroom on the morning of Sept. 11, when the planes hit.

“We were in lockdown,” said Lucarelli, many of whose 9 and 10- year-old students had parents working in or near the World Trade Center.

“There was lot’s of anxiety,” she said. Fortunately, only one parent was injured, and none died. But that did not mean the anxieties went away, she said. When classes resumed two days later emotions were raw. At one point, a student asked Lucarelli for a hug.

She then glanced around the room and spotted three teddy bears. She immediately identified them as huggable items. She passed them out to the children to share but resolved to soon have one for every child.

She got to work immediately networking with the help of her church in Manhasset, Long Island, where she lives. Requests for the bears quickly grew. First, siblings of her students asked for them for their schools. Before long, principals around the city were calling.

“I started getting 25 to 30 calls a day,” she said.

Meeting the demand was not a problem. Supplies poured in from around the country, including from an Indian Reservation in Arizona and the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan which sent a 16-wheeler full.

Lucarelli began distributing them to schools in Lower Manhattan, that were closest to ground zero, including P.S. 234 and 89, as well as Little Red School House in the Village and several schools in Chinatown.

A P.S. 89 parent who coordinated the 9/11 donations remembered what it felt like to receive gifts like the teddy bears.

“They were very meaningful to us,” said Maria Ouranitsas, a member of the P.T.A. “Somebody out there was trying to do something. It helped the kids during that difficult, time — the parents, too.”

That the bears were appreciated by adults soon became apparent to Lucarelli once she began volunteering across the street from the site, at St. Paul’s procuring supplies for recovery workers.

“Big, huge, tree-like guys wanted them. They snapped them up faster than the kids,” said Lucarelli. “They put them in their helmets and pockets.”

Lucarelli may have been particularly motivated because of the losses in her community. Manhasset was one of the hardest-hit suburbs — it lost 58 people, she said.

“Everybody knows somebody,” said Lucarelli.

Three of her son’s friends died, including his college roommate who worked at Cantor Fitzgerald.

Soon the teddy bears came to the attention of the news media and Lucarelli appeared on CNN and Fox News. One person who saw her was Jeff Barker, a professor and playwright at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. Coincidentally, he was a friend of the pastor at the Community Reformed Church in Manhasset, Lucarelli’s church. He got in touch and soon traveled east to spend two weeks trailing Lucarelli around her classroom with a notebook. He then wrote the play, “September Bear,” which was first performed in New York area churches this past spring by the college’s student troupe.

The free St. Paul’s production will be performed by the college’s professional company, made up of alumni who are working actors. The group is winding up a 13-state tour. Performing in a major city is a big step for the group which mainly performs one-performance shows in small rural communities, according to Tamara Fynaardt, a spokesperson for the college. The group will also perform in Manhattan at the Lambs Theater and Marble Collegiate Church.

But for many, including Lucarelli, there will be nothing as meaningful as the performance at St. Paul’s.

“It was Sue’s passion to have it performed at St. Paul’s,” said Fynaardt. “It’s a healing play, funny, hopeful. It’s her gift to the volunteers.”

The play opens at St. Paul’s on Wed. June 25. Performances will be at 1 p.m. from Wed. through Friday, June 27. On Sat. and Sunday at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. The show is 1 hour. Performances are free. Reservations are encouraged to guarantee a seat: 646-772-6272 or Leave a message specifying the performance and number of seats.


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