by Stacey Dexter*
As this year has whizzed by us in a fury, so too, has the 20th anniversary of the juggernaut known as Bear Fever. A recent “bear count” has them totaling over 80 from its beginnings in 2003. Now in 2023, this sleeper of a project has produced a plethora of bears, each embodying a special moment in time.
Bear Fever began in 2003, a history rich in community and artistry. The story of its incredible beginnings can be found here at http://bearfever.org/about. It is a fever that has elevated the local temperature within schools, businesses, families, and individual donors. As of this year, the fever has not dissipated and it has been widely accepted that there is no cure! The bears have filled the town with vibrant color, humor, visual appeal, many artistic mediums and styles, and the fondest of memories. Its amazing legacy seems locked in place for decades to come.
There are many stories attached to each bear, and a particular set of bears holds a heartbreaking tragedy paired with unbreakable faith and hope. In 2020, not one, but two bears were commissioned by Rob and Linda Snyder, of Stowe, PA. The bears were created in memory of their daughter Pamela and her two children: eight year old Preston, and her unborn daughter, Evelynn Rose.
On July 11, 2019, an eight month’s pregnant Pamela Snyder and her son, Preston, were in their car headed back home after running some errands. As Pamela approached the area near the Manatawny Creek in Berks County, a torrential rain swamped the roadway and a flash flood almost immediately took the car. Pamela, eight year old Preston, and her soon to be born daughter, Evelynn Rose, perished in the flood. It was a shocking and devastating accident for the family and the community.
Out of this heartbreaking event came some incredible goodness and an extraordinary show of love for the Snyder family, and Pamela’s then fiancé, Josh Knarr. It was in these moments that the Snyders felt the enormous love of their community—they were bestowed with an astonishing demonstration of support and faith that sustains them to this day.
When little Preston was in the third grade, just one year before the unimaginable incident took his life, his teacher had asked the students to choose a “passion project,” an action that each child felt strongly about, whether for themselves or others. Preston decided that his was to “help poor people.” He decorated a special box, organized a food drive, and was able to collect 45 pounds of food for the Boyertown Area Multi-Service. His love and concern for others less fortunate inspired a movement. Preston’s grandfather, Rob Snyder, (also known as Pop-Pop), credits his daughter for instilling loving kindness and thoughtfulness into his grandson and his “best buddy,” Preston, whom he misses immensely.
The Boyertown Area Multi-Service food bank was soon renamed Preston’s Pantry in his honor.
In August of 2019, the community helped to secure over 55,000 pounds of food at the first ever Preston’s Pantry Project. It was such a success that one has been held every year, with combined donations totaling over 70,000 pounds of food and toiletry items. This shocking accident unknowingly created a beautiful and inspiring legacy that will keep Pamela, Preston, and baby Evelynn’s memory alive and in everyone’s hearts, forever.
The artist of the bears is a former art teacher and Chicago native, Ms. Suzanne Walsh. She worked with Mr. Snyder at the Pine Forge Elementary School where Snyder was a custodian. He had known Walsh since 2010, forging a friendship over the years. She graciously agreed to paint the bears for free, even though she had no experience working with the medium of a fiberglass structure. Walsh spent hours researching and locating just the kind of paint colors that she needed to achieve the desired effect. Her attention to detail in bringing forth the personalities and love that both Pamela and Preston displayed while on this earth is evident and touching.
The results speak for themselves: a strong, pregnant Mama bear has her torso enveloped by a flurry of yellow sunflowers (Pamela’s favorite flowers), her nails and toes painted a cheery pink, (she always had a mani/pedi), and a beautiful mosaic heart, with a rose placed atop it, representing Evelynn. Preston’s bear depicts him in his favorite red sneakers, jean shorts, and a red Preston’s Pantry t-shirt. An image of the box he created for donations is displayed on the back. His smile is at once endearing and mischievous!
In speaking with me, the Snyder family expressly wanted to thank the many kind and generous people who came to their aid spiritually, mentally, physically, and financially after the unimaginable and sudden death of their daughter and her two children. Both of their former employers, (the Parkhouse Retirement Center and the New Eagle Elementary School); the Houck and Gofus Funeral Home; Berks Meats, (who have since donated hundreds of pounds of meat to the food pantry every year); the owner and fellow co-workers of Pamela’s at the Brookside Diner in Pottstown; the Colebrookdale Chapel community, and countless friends, family, and strangers.
One person in particular that Rob Snyder wanted to mention is Randy Doaty. A former police chief, EMT, and Boyertown Multi-Use Service volunteer, Randy not only took Rob to dinner several times to be supportive and to listen, but he also ran the grief share class that both Rob and Linda attended after their daughter’s passing. Doaty also wrote the incredibly touching poem that was featured in the funeral program entitled, “The Three of Us,” in memory of Pamela and her children. He was a complete stranger to the Snyder family, and Rob credits him for helping him weather this most challenging time in his life.
Most touching for the family was the presence of the community, adults and children alike, lining the streets during the funeral possession with their hands placed lovingly over their hearts. It will be an image, and a feeling, that they will never forget.
The bears have been an incredible balm for the Snyder family. They can see the ongoing work of the food pantry named after their cherished grandson and be reminded of the compassion and loving spirit of their daughter, Pamela. The family of bears can now be viewed outside the main entrance surrounded by “memory rocks,” which were created by staff and volunteers of the pantry. Pamela and Preston’s bears are now officially a part of the Bear Fever legacy, a loving tribute to a remarkable mother, her son, and unborn daughter. May they rest in peace.
Many thanks to the Snyders for the precious time and energy that it took to tell me their inspiring story.
The bears stories and information will live on in perpetuity, along with all of the others, at http://bearfever.org/
You can also send donations to the food pantry in Preston and Pamela’s names here: http://www.boyertownareamulti-...*Stacey Dexter is a nonfiction writer living in the Southwest. She has written pieces for the American Red Cross of Massachusetts, featuring some of their volunteers for the national blog, "Sleeves Up, Hearts Open, All in." Stacey has also published with
The Boyertown Area Expression, and her first book,
Eddie: One Dog's Journey from Hobo to a Home, about a homeless dog she adopted in the 90's, is now available wherever books are sold. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.orgSponsor:
Boyertown Area Multi-Service
200 Spring Street
Boyertown, PA 19512
Donations from the community sponsored the bears who are dedicated to Pamela Snyder, her son Preston, and the baby girl that Pamela was expecting, Evelyn Rose who died when their car ws swept away in a flash flood in 2019.
Preston had been given a classroom assignment to complete a project on a passion of his. It cold have been anything, such as a hobby or sport. Preston chose hunger and decided to conduct a food drive. He designed flyers and put a sign on a box asking for donations. He and his classmates collected 45 pounds of food that they donated to Boyertown Area Multi-Service.
At the funeral, the family asked for donations to be directed to Boyertown Area Multi-Service, Inc. which then hosted a food drive in Preston's memory. Over 300 businesses collected food with donations over 20,000 pounds in Preston's name. The weekend of the drive included food trucks, a DJ, t-shirts printed with "1st annual Preston's Pantry project." Boyertown Area Multi-Service has rebranded its food pantry in Preston's name.
Suzanne, originally from Chicago, now lives in Wayne, PA, and is a retired elementary art teacher who met Rob Snyder, Pamela's father, when she was at school preparing for art shows at night. He was a custodian.
When he first called her to do the bears, she refused—didn’t feel confident/competent: “I’m not an artist—I teach art; this project is not for me." But Rob insisted, so she began a journey of learning how and what to do—from the website and from other Bear Fever artists--and she tried to learn what the Snyders would like their bears to look like. She asked questions about Preston and his mom, learned that she liked sunflowers. Got to know her through conversations with Rob and Linda.
Rob kept saying “Do what you want.” Suzanne learned that the couple liked the bear at Taylor Backes that is decorated with pieces of glass—a mosaic, so with that in mind plus the sunflowers, Suzanne began a plan. She made the bear’s nose a pink heart. She had the bears fingernails and toenails painted nicely; apparently mom always had her hair nails done.
With Preston she knew she had to create sneakers (red chucks?) She learned that Preston’s idea for collecting food came from a school’s “passion project.” Some kids named sports. Preston was concerned about kids who had no food in summertime. They described him as a “humble boy” who wanted to know how to help his community.
For his passion project, he drew on a box that would hold food items. He named foods; the box appears on the bear’s back. Suzanne wants folks to see the back of the bear because the box is featured.
A YouTube video was created about Preston’s school—Pine Forge Elementary School--that has since been closed. The video includes info about Preston and his project. https://youtu.be/MR_5qYWf55g
Of the process, Suzanne noted that at times it was difficult to get the colors of the paint she wanted. She spent about 3 months creating the bears.
Rob was very complimentary about the folks at Multi-Service—where Preston’s Pantry is located and the bear project. There are rocks around the area where the bears are located. There was a rock painting party. The rocks have inspiring words on them.
While they acknowledged their on-going grief, Rob spoke a bit about the blessings they’ve received since the tragedy. People have paid for their dinners. During the funeral procession, folks stood out with their hands over their hearts as the procession drove past. He said they’ve met “amazing people everywhere." He said that the tragedy “made me grow.”