Justin Webb: Every child needs the comfort of a stuffed toy

"For a child, a stuffed toy can be a step back from the brink of despair"

Donkey is lost. In the rear-view mirror there is a tableau of distress: older children pained, youngest distraught and tear-stained. Little blue stuffed Donkey, who has been with her since birth, was with her when she broke her arm, with her in the emergency room when she rammed a biro into her throat (don’t ask) and with her on happier nights, too.


Donkey, who was cleared away with the laundry in a hotel in San Francisco, causing a frantic dad to burst in on the cleaners in their basement lair and beg: “Azul burro!” He was found.

But now he is lost. He is not in her bag. He is not on the floor of the car. And we are on our way home from holiday and cannot turn back.

Should we turn back? Should we return to Switzerland and simply refuse to leave until he is found? I dimly remember that the Swiss have a rather good English-language radio station. Perhaps I could work there. By night I could look for Donkey. I seriously consider it.

But in the end, with heavy hearts, we continue our journey back to Britain. We hope he was left in the chalet we rented. We are not sure. 

What is it about stuffed animals? This week RT asks us to choose our favourite BBC children’s TV characters of all time and I am hoping that Wombles and Clangers and other appealing little critters will dominate. Stuffed animals have hung in there during fads for talking steam engines and robots and spacemen and builders and firemen and postmen. To me Tiny Clanger still edges it.

But even better than the familiar face of a make-believe creature on television are the feel and smell and texture of one that a child takes to bed. When I lived in the United States I came across a wonderful charity whose sole purpose was to bring soft toys to children who had seen trauma.

Stuffed Animals for Emergencies (SAFE) has a slightly mawkish website and a rather hit-and-miss presence in the vastness of America. But its heart is in the right place. It takes unwanted presents and only occasionally snuggled, previously owned bears, and rather than selling them and using the money, it passes the whole bear, in all its charm, to a child in distress. Some go to shelters and hospitals, some are handed out by police officers at the scene of awful events.

Maybe SAFE should be turbo-charged in the modern world, and made truly international. We are becoming more attuned to the psychological needs of children. Our own recent history in this country – the way children in distress were ignored by individuals and by the authorities – is now a matter of broadly acknowledged regret, even shame.

And, in the digital age, we are linked to crises abroad by the click of a button. Witness the sadness and outrage over those kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria; our sense of helplessness over Syria. I wonder if the so-called Friends of Syria – the collection of nations who back the moderate Syrian opposition – might think of going down the soft toy road. After all, there is precious little else they can do.

There is a big relief effort to help the millions of Syrians now living in refugee camps but I doubt that soft toys are at the top of anyone’s agenda. Perhaps they should be; if not at the top, then at least on it somewhere.

Let us not be sentimental: Syrian children need all manner of things before they need stuffed animals, but still, to a child who has lost everything, a stuffed toy can be a step back from the brink of total despair.

Talking of which – Donkey, thankfully, turned up. Though not before further alarms. Efforts to communicate with the cleaners via Google Translate were hampered by a typing error. The chalet owner typed “Fiends of mine have left their donkey” – it is almost certainly against Swiss law to allow fiends into the country (Google translated “fiends” as devils or demons), let alone with their donkeys.

But eventually – through the kindness of people who know the value of a stuffed donkey – he was popped in the post and turned up again in London. Little daughter was very, very pleased. I wish it were possible to bottle her joy and hand it out via stuffed animals, in every corner of the world. 


Justin Webb presents Today on Radio 4