Gresham Teddy Bear Parade marches back to downtown next month
Five years ago one of the most popular community events came under threat from stormy forecasts that predicted a down pouring of rain.
That weekend in 2017 everything was being canceled — farmers markets, outdoor concerts, programs for children in local parks — but not the Gresham Teddy Bear Parade. Rain or shine, the parade marches on thanks in large part to a dedicated group of volunteers and sponsors.
"We had never canceled the parade before because of weather, so even though it was supposed to rain cats and dogs we kept going," said Peggy Johansen, a founding member of the Soroptimist International of Gresham.
That faith paid off — the rain let up minutes before the start of the parade and didn't pick back up until the final float rounded the last bend of the route.
"Even I didn't know I was that good," Johansen said with a laugh.
That mindset is what made the past two years so difficult, not only for the Soroptimists, but for the entire community. Because of the global pandemic, the Teddy Bear Parade has been dormant since 2019, canceled two-straight years to keep everyone safe and healthy.
"Not having the parade left a void inside me," Johansen said. "I knew we were in such a difficult situation, and then we had to take something like this away that brings so much joy. All of us missed it."
But now teddy bears are coming back to downtown Gresham, as the parade is set to return next month bigger and better than ever.
"We are back," Johansen said with a laugh.
"There is this whole COVID generation who haven't seen the parade yet," added Mary Ellen Robbins, president of the Gresham Soroptimists.
The 40th annual Gresham Teddy Bear Parade will take place Saturday, Sept. 24, on a winding route through downtown. The hundreds of expected entries will group up around 8:30 a.m. that morning in a staging area at East Hill Church, a longtime supporter of the parade, and the festivities will begin promptly at 10 a.m.
The route winds along Miller, Main, Roberts and Hood avenues, and down Fifth Street to return to East Hill. All the way the streets are lined with thousands of visitors. And the parade will again be hosted by Carol Nielsen and Greg Matthews, reclaiming their roles as comedic MCs stationed at the corner of Main Avenue and Third Street.
For anyone who hasn't experienced the parade in person, it is a treat for all ages. In the past about 2,000 people have walked or ridden in a procession filled with colorful floats, musical marching bands, horses and pets, and, of course, many stuffed teddy bears. This year there won't be any political candidates promoting their upcoming races, because the organizers want to double down on making the day special for kids.
"We have always been devoted to children, but we are leaning into that with the return," Johansen said. "Everyone is so glad the parade is coming back."
Bears and smiles
Soroptimist Monica Weitzel will never forget the first time she walked in the Teddy Bear Parade.
"The joy on the faces in the crowd, especially the kids, really warmed my heart," she said.
Weitzel, who used to host MetroEast Community Media's Community Hotline television program, would have the joy each year of previewing the parade, and laughed about grown women showing up for the interview clutching teddy bears.
"It is amazing to see who you run into on the day," Johansen said.
Many have fond memories from the four decades of the parade.
Betty Chisum smiles when remembering cruising the route in a gleaming white Cadillac; while Sue O'Halloran recalls the first time the Gresham and Barlow High School marching bands performed roaring tunes.
"You can't have a parade without bands," O'Halloran said with a laugh.
"While each parade has been unique, they are all about bringing community together," she added. "It's about seeing your neighbors, saying hello, and having fun."
Though the parade began as an independent event 40 years ago, with the Soroptimists serving as dedicated sponsors and volunteers, the organization has since become synonymous with the event. Without the many Soroptimists throughout the 30 years as organizers, the Teddy Bear Parade would be nowhere near as beloved as it is today.
"The parade is our primary fundraiser, so it hurt not having it the last few years," Robbins said. "It has become such a large community event, we are proud to have built it into that."
The Teddy Bear Parade isn't just a diverting outing for the community, it also serves as the Soroptimists' most significant annual fundraising endeavor. Funds from the entry fees and generous sponsors support scholarships, mentorship programs and career training for young women and girls.
Specifically the parade backs the Live Your Dream awards, which gives grants to women pursuing education goals after surviving domestic violence, trafficking, assault, addiction, and more; and Dream It Be It, which gives career support for young girls so they can achieve goals and overcome obstacles.
"Those programs are confidence builders," Robbins said. "We give the women and girls the tools to show they are someone, and that they can achieve their aspirations."
The Soroptimists haven't been alone in their efforts. In addition to the many volunteers who keep everything running smoothly, the parade has been backed by dedicated sponsors who return decade after decade. Weston Kia, All About Automotive, Clackamas County Bank, Mt. Hood Community College, Alina Rocha Johnson — Edward Jones, and Riverview Community Bank are just some who have had a big impact in the return.
"Thank you, we couldn't do it without you," Johansen said. "The partnerships we have developed have been invaluable."
And, of course, much of the credit falls on the shoulders of Johansen, who has served as parade coordinator with a magnetic energy. Though she would be quick to credit others, Johansen is diligent in securing entries, sponsors, volunteers, and everything else that ensures the parade runs smoothly. Sometimes she can even hold off the rain.
"My favorite part of the parade is when all of a sudden, right before it starts, you see how it all came together," Johansen said. "You see all those happy people, all those spectators, and think, 'Wow, they are all so excited.'"
"If you can't smile seeing kids happy around all those teddy bears, what can you smile at?" she added.
If you go:
40th Annual Gresham Teddy Bear Parade
10 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 24
Route through downtown
Learn more sigresham.org
Join the Parade
There are many ways to support or join the Teddy Bear Parade, hosted by the Soroptimist International of Gresham.
The deadline to register is Monday, Sept 12; volunteer opportunities include traffic control, keeping parade moving, lining up participants, carrying banners, securing entry numbers, picking up trash, more.
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