Hannah Chung recalls the moment when she realized that Type 2 diabetes was deadly. She was in the sixth grade and just found out that her grandfather died from hypoglycemia.
“Growing up, I would see them [my grandparents and my dad] prick their fingers to take their blood sugar level or take pills,” Chung said. “But I was young and my grandparents and dad seemed healthy. But when my grandfather passed away, I realized that Type 2 diabetes had a serious impact ”
Because of her family’s history of Type 2 diabetes, Chung had always been aware of the illness and started to learn more about it as she got older. By the time she started college at Northwestern University, Chung had grown passionate about diabetic care. In her sophomore year, when she met Aaron Horowitz — an undergrad who had a similar passion — the two put their heads together and eventually came up with the idea to create Jerry the Bear.
“Jerry the Bear is a comforting companion for kids who have a chronic condition,” Chung explained. “Learning about how to deal with those social situations — and wanting to help other kids try to get rid of the fear of injections — was something Aaron was passionate about, since he had human growth hormone deficiency from when he was young.”
While Chung and Horowitz did extensive research on Type 1 diabetes, they noticed several common themes. Among these trends included engaging children using a story- or game-based model.
“When we went to the homes of families, we saw kids projecting what they were going through to their stuffed animals,” Chung recalled. “We thought, ‘How could we bring this type of play to life?’ That’s how we created Jerry the Bear.”
While the idea for Jerry the Bear was birthed in spring 2009, it didn’t take off right away, as Chung was busy with Design for America (DFA), which she co-founded. DFA was a nationwide network of college studios where students use design thinking and human-centered design to solve local social problems. However, Chung and Horowitz turned their attention back to Jerry in fall 2011, and that’s when they launched their first prototype.
“[With the prototype] we followed the approach of the 20-40-60-80 rule, which means that you first come up with a 20 percent-completed product and you get 80 percent feedback,” Chung explained. “After incorporating that feedback, you make a 40 percent-completed prototype and test it with people, and so on.”
During that time, Chung and Horowitz also attended numerous conferences on Type 1 diabetes and did testing by lending Jerrys to families for a week at a time.
“The parents would keep a journal, take photos and record how much playing [time] and then give the bear back to us for analyzation,” Chung said. “We made sure we tested [Jerry] with parents and kids because kids are very honest, so getting their insight was important. That was the approach we took — iterate often and test often until we had the final product.”
Jerry the Bear’s first production run was in 2013, and the response from both kids and parents was overwhelming. Jerrys were purchased through the Jerry the Bear website, and Chung and Horowitz also partnered with the Build-a-Bear Foundation, who donated bears to different diabetes camps to teach kids the basics of Type 1 diabetes. The second production run of Jerry the Bears was last Christmas, due to continued interest and demand for the child-friendly, educational toy.
“We heard a lot of cool things, such as kids now being able to articulate their senses very well and kids learning math through carb counting,” Chung said.
Not only did the interactive toy teach children more about Type 1 diabetes — you can check Jerry’s blood sugar levels and give him insulin — but it also gave families an opportunity to have an open conversation about the chronic illness.
“One of the outcomes of having Jerry was empowering kids to bring the awareness of their condition to other people,” Chung said. “Coping with your emotions and being able to have the family unit have an active conversation about the emotional side of diabetes is important.”
This latter point especially hits home for Chung, whose father was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes when he was in his 40s. Because taking lots of pills on a daily basis was difficult for her dad, he decided to alter his diet and exercise, a transition Chung describes as hard but worthwhile.
“There were a lot of things we had to learn as family members to support my dad,” she said. “We had to make sure there were no processed foods in the house, and we had to change our whole family diet so that my dad wouldn’t feel alone.”
While she knows she will never fully comprehend everything her grandparents and dad went through with Type 2 diabetes, Chung believes she has a better understanding of diabetes as a whole since she started working on Jerry the Bear.
“I now can have conversations with my dad [about diabetes] in a more knowledgeable way,” Chung said. “My dad actually has a Jerry, too — it sort of forces him to continuously do a better job of taking care of his body.”
Currently, Chung and Horowitz are expanding their market to include kids with food allergies. Chung hopes Jerry can eventually become a platform to teach children about overall health and wellness.
“We’re thinking of using Jerry to build a core curriculum around nutrition, sleep, exercise and mindfulness,” she said. “The physical play and the story-based play is something that can help kids learn, and we’re seeing patterns among how kids deal with these chronic conditions.”
As Chung continues to dream of ways to use Jerry the Bear to impact others, she encourages those who want to make a difference in the world to simply start somewhere — even if their ideas may not be fully fleshed out.
“If you don’t act upon it [your idea], you won’t know what the impact is like,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be perfect, but start doing [something]. To make the world a better place, think about a problem that makes you excited. Having that passion about the problem is important in order to have an impact.”
Learn more about Jerry the Bear at the educational toy’s website and by watching the video below:
Top photo caption: From left to right, Brian Oley, Hannah Chung, Aaron Horowitz and Joel Schwartz. (Photo courtesy of Sproutel)