Saturday, August 9, 2014

Open Letter to Build A Bear Workshop Founder, Maxine Clark

Maxine Clark, Founder
Build A Bear Workshop

Dear Ms. Clark,

I wanted to take a moment to introduce you to Lili, one of Build A Bear's newest furry friends.

Aside from being an adorable pug, she is dressed up in super hero gear and her heart is filled with courage.

Why is she a super hero?

Because she was built as a reminder of all the daily heroes out there, people who are making change happen in our world just by their very presence. She was built as a symbol of the ongoing crusade for human rights and as a beacon of hope for those who are still battling every day against bigotry, oppression, fear and hatred.

And she was built in celebration; celebration of the news that Build A Bear Workshop has terminated its association with Autism Speaks, an organization that has done tremendous harm to Autistic people across the world.

Autistic people like my son, Sam.

(Edited to add: for an indepth article examining the various issues with Autism Speaks, please refer to this post, written by my friend Michelle Sutton: I will not 'Light It Up Blue'!)

Sammie is a four year old, non-speaking Autistic child who is full of joy, wonder, and total awesomeness from head to toe. :)

And today, for the first time ever, Sam went into the Build A Bear Workshop knowing that he was walking into a space that recognized his humanity and his right to acceptance, dignity, and respect. He walked right in, built himself a bear, gave her a bath, dressed her in her super hero gear, and named her Lili.

As he chose his new friend's furry form, he scanned the wall, carefully taking in the dozens of colourful and interesting furry friends to choose from.

A wealth of options were available, reflecting, in a sense, the diversity of children themselves. Like each custom-made bear, no two children are exactly alike- and it is our differences as human beings that make us unique and exceptional. Each one of us has different likes/dislikes, interests, beliefs, values, abilities, skills, and personalities.

It is this very principle of diversity- that every child should be able to freely choose who their favourite bear will be- that inspired the Build A Bear vision and has allowed it to grow into the successful, international corporation that it is today.

Ms. Clark, your mission statement says it all:

"At Build-A-Bear Workshop®, our mission is to bring the Teddy Bear to life. An American icon, the Teddy Bear brings to mind warm thoughts about our childhood, about friendship, about trust and comfort, and also about love. Build-A-Bear Workshop embodies those thoughts in how we run our business everyday."

Friendship. Trust. Comfort. Love.

Are these not the very foundational principles that human happiness is built upon?

These are the things I want for my child, now and as he grows older.

More than cures, or therapies, or treatments.

I want him to find friendship. True friendship that accepts him for who he is, and encourages him to thrive- not in spite of his difference, but because of them. Friendship that lasts a lifetime and that changes his world for the better. This kind of friendship can not be prescribed. It does not happen by forcing him to be more 'normal'; it happens by creating a world that is more accepting of diversity and differences.

I want him to find trust. This does not happen by violating his personal rights, body and dignity. It does not happen by discounting his voice, and the voice of other Autistics, from the Autism dialogue. It happens by establishing that we, his parents and his community, will keep him safe from harm- harmful therapies and harmful ideas that wound the spirit. It happens by valuing that he has a voice, despite the fact that he does not use words. It happens by respecting that his right to human dignity trumps other people's right to comfort. Trust is an ongoing and fragile process, built upon an established mutual respect.

I want him to find comfort. There are many things in Sammie's life that will make him uncomfortable. There are things that will cause him pain. There are things that will cause him distress. There are things that will cause him fear. My role- my mission as a parent- is to find ways to minimize these difficulties and to help him manage the obstacles that he faces with strength, courage, conviction and a sense of self-worth. This does not mean "curing" him; it means supporting him and strengthening him. It means understanding that disabilities require a holistic approach and that our greatest responsibility is to do no harm- to not cause him or others additional pain in our attempts to "fix" things about him that are not broken. It means helping him become resilient, and always being the 'soft place' for him to land on when things get hard.

I want him to experience love. There are no words that could ever do justice to the amount of love that I have for my children. I will not even attempt to find them. But my vision for Sammie is so much bigger than just me. I want Sammie to find love everywhere he goes. And really, isn't that what most parents want for their children? I want Sammie's heart to overflow with love every minute of every day for the rest of his life. Love of others. Love for others. Love for himself.

And for that to happen, more people need to do as you and Build A Bear Workshop have done. More people need to stand up and say that to love someone is to accept them for who they are. That pouring money, time and energy into trying to find ways to 'cure', 'change', 'conquer', 'defeat' or otherwise 'attack' Autism is to tell Autistic people that they are not worthy of being loved. That they are not worthy of being respected. That who they are as human beings is not valuable.

Ms. Clark, as our family built Sammie's puppy today, watching him choose her name and squeal with joy as he gave her a bath, my thoughts were on you and your organization. On the good that I sincerely believe was in your hearts when you partnered with an association that claimed to be promoting a worthy cause.  Of the betrayal you must feel at knowing that this organization is really promoting harm and is doing so despite the resounding supplications of the Autistic community to change their ways. Of the anger you must feel at knowing that there are people out there who believe that Autistic children aren't worthy of love and acceptance based solely on the fact that they are different.

My thoughts were on this, and on all the work that you still have ahead of you to continue to undo the harm that has been done.

I am so grateful that Build A Bear Workshop has terminated this relationship. I am so grateful to know that the words in your mission statement are true and sincere; that you truly are committed to giving children happiness and joy. I am grateful, and I am hopeful that you will now seize the opportunity to become advocates for friendship, trust, comfort, and love for people of all abilities.

Sammie's new bear wears a superhero cape to commemorate the fact that total strangers can be super heroes in their every day, ordinary lives.

Today, Build A Bear Workshop became part of Sammie's super hero team. I hope you will continue to rise to the challenge and continue to earn your cape.

With deep respect and appreciation,

Sammie's mom.


  1. A response from Cindy, a Build A Bear Representative, on their facebook page: "Dear Zita - Your little boy is so lucky to have a mamma like you. Your blog post is beautiful, and quite frankly, your words brought me to tears. Sammie is a precious gift, and we here at BABW recognize that ALL children are a gift to be cherished and loved. Peace - Cindy"

  2. I wrote at about this admittedly important but much shorter than it needs to be step. I think it is worth the effort for both your good self and your audience to read what I have to say.

    Patting the back of Build-A-Bear when they appear to have only done half a job is not going to do us a favour. Okay, so you have one less (out of thousands) of reasons to fear for your child.

    What about those of us who can and do speak for ourselves, and do not live in America? What about us? And that speaks to the most profound division there is between the "parent of a child with autism" bunch and us, the autistic. You get all the attention, we end up suffering because you either jump guns or fail to think through.

    Build-A-Bear's severing of ties to Autism Speaks FNA is a good thing. But until they go out of their way to let _all_ of their customers know why, and sever all ties with _all_ anti-autistic hate groups, autistic people everywhere have no reason to celebrate.

    The Irish political party that was essentially a part of the IRA had a name that was and still is instructive for the autistic civil rights movement. Sinn Féin, an Irish phrase for "we ourselves". Sam might be a small child now, but there will come a time when he is the same age that I am now.

    Thirty years from now, the way in which parental "advocates" behave, the way the movement cheers at a job half-done, and the way the movement fails to understand we are essentially at war, will have people like Sam taking up the same cry. Autistic people want to be spoken for and about by only one group of people.

    We. Ourselves.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I felt it warranted more than just a short acknowledgement, so I have responded here. I welcome a continued dialogue on this topic, as well as an opportunity to grow and learn how to better support Sam in acquiring his voice.

  3. Dear Maxine Clark, your vision brought joy to countless childhoods through Build-A-Bear Workshop. Your dedication to creating cherished memories is commendable. This open letter celebrates your impact and expresses gratitude for the magical world you've given us. Thank you for spreading smiles one bear hug at a time! Quality Behavior Solutions, Inc.