- A TikTok video shows a builder trying not to cry while listening to a recording to be put in a bear.
- Some employees say they build one or two "memory bears" with voice recordings each shift.
- The bear builders receive no training on how to deal with grieving customers.
- For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.
When 24-year-old Yerry got a job at Build-A-Bear, she didn't expect the job would get so heavy. But she was soon breaking down in tears as she sewed voice recordings of dead loved ones into stuffed animals.
For Yerry and other bear builders, birthday-party bears and happy children are just part of the experience. They also build "memory bears," which can involve putting departed loved ones' voices and human remains inside the bears instead of wishes and scented hearts.
Yerry was putting the last voicemail someone left a family member into a bear when she made a now-viral TikTok video documenting her experience.
At first, Yerry, who asked that her full name not be used to protect future employment opportunities, didn't understand the interest in her video.
"But then it hit me, and I realised not a lot of people are aware of this side of Build-A-Bear," she told Insider.
Yerry lasted five months at Build-A-Bear before resigning to focus on her other jobs. She said she had been building one or two memory bears each shift.
During the pandemic, the company's bear builders increasingly found themselves on the front lines of America's grief as Build-A-Bear's adult customer base grew. As the company pivoted to digital sales, its revenue soared to a record $91.5 million in 2021.
The majority of Build-A-Bears are purchased for children, but as the company's CEO, Sharon John, explained on investor calls in March, a growing share of the company's profit comes from "tweens, teens, and adults." This includes adults gifting bears to other adults, sometimes as memorial keepsakes.
The five current and two former bear builders who spoke to Insider said they often assist customers in person by replaying voicemails over and over while creating memory bears, which can make customers more upset. They sometimes deal with people who bring the cremated remains of a loved one into the store and then have to tell those people the remains need to be in a sealed container before they can go in a bear.
The bear builders say they're proud to bring the voices of the dead back to their loved ones but lack the training to interact with traumatised people in emotional situations.
One bear builder salvaged a recording of a woman's best friend who had been murdered
Build-A-Bear currently has 349 corporate-managed stores across malls in the US as well as locations on Carnival Cruise lines and Beaches Family resorts, among other locations.
Bear builders have many roles in the Build-A-Bear Workshop, assisting customers in store and building bears for online orders.
On any given day, they may find themselves stuffing, dressing, and naming bears. They make bears for birthday parties, build "memory bears" for customers, and greet every guest with a smile.
Voice recordings have also been a key part of the Build-A-Bear experience in recent years, with customers uploading recordings to the website to be inserted into bears in warehouses and stores.
Misha, a bear builder from Missouri, who asked her full name not to be used to protect her job, said the two times she's had to make memory bears have been hard for her to forget.
In one instance, she helped a young woman whose best friend had been killed in a homicide. Speaker boxes that go inside bears have a 20-second time limit, so Misha helped the customer choose the most important part of a message from the best friend, holding the phone up to the speaker and hitting play at just the right time.
"It was her friend saying hello to her by name, and saying something singsongy and silly," Misha said.
Another time, an adult customer wanted to make a voice recording of her father but didn't have any personal messages from him, just practical, "call me back" kind of voicemails.
"We worked for a few minutes perfectly cutting off the voicemail at 'Hello,' before his long callback message started," Misha said, adding that the single word was enough to bring her to tears.
Bethany, an 18-year-old bear builder in Alabama, who also asked her full name not be used to protect her job, said she cried after assisting a little girl with choosing, stuffing, dressing, and naming a bear for her father, who had recently died.
"While they were picking out clothes, tears started falling down my face, and I excused myself before I think they noticed," said Bethany. "I couldn't breathe and basically freaked out for five minutes. I haven't even suffered a close loss yet. I'm only 18. What am I supposed to say?"
On another occasion, a customer with terminal cancer came into Bethany's store to make bears for her grandchildren. Bethany helped the customer record her message.
"She said, 'I love you, from the bottom of my heart, forever and always. Love, Grandma.' I still think about her sometimes," Bethany said.
Bear builders don't just put voice recordings in bears. Eighteen-year-old Quinn LaRusso had been working as a bear builder for a month when a manager assigned him to build a bear for a family whose baby died of sudden infant death syndrome.
"They pulled out an urn not much bigger than the size of my hand," said LaRusso, who sewed the ashes into a pastel-pink bear.
He said it was hard for him to put the urn into the bear with the parents' eyes on him, but believes it was harder for them to watch him do it.
Bear builders believe grief training would help
According to LaRusso and several other bear builders, the training at Build-A-Bear is brief, with attention paid to point of sale and the art of bear building, but staff are not trained on how to handle customers' grief.
The bear builders say they want training that prepares them to support customers dealing with grief and helps them protect their own mental health.
Build-A-Bear is in "an incredibly important position to help" people talk about grief in a society that fails to honour it, but without proper training, workers are at high risk for compassion fatigue, said Corrie Sirota, a clinical social worker and psychotherapist who specialises in grief.
When Insider asked if Build-A-Bear plans to offer grief training to retail workers, the company provided a statement from Emily Fuhrman, the director of PR and cause marketing.
"Build-A-Bear Workshop is a beloved brand and experience that many people and families choose to engage with for a wide variety of reasons," Fuhrman said. "We have been honoured over our last nearly 25 years to be of service to our guests and are proud of our associates who provide experiences in ways that respect our mission of adding a little more heart to life."
The bear builders Insider spoke to said they know how much these memory bears mean to people, but the repeated exposure to trauma wears them down.
"Sometimes I wonder if it's worth it," said Bethany. "To go through the grief process, sometimes multiple times in a day, having to comfort them, for the same pay that you get from somewhere else for much less responsibility than dealing with the grief process."