College student launches ‘QuaranTine Bears’ to encourage children to wear masks and stay safe during coronavirus outbreak
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College student launches ‘QuaranTine Bears’ to encourage children to wear masks and stay safe during coronavirus outbreak

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Olivia Carlson wears a matching purple mask as the one on a teddy bear for a portrait at her family home Thursday, May 7, 2020, in New Hartford. Carlson, 22, a CCSU senior and dance teacher, recently began a small business selling teddy bears with masks and matching ones for children as a source of entertainment and comfort for kids during quarantine. So far, she’s sold over 140 in two weeks, and she said she’s sewing 12 hours a day. (Kassi Jackson/Hartford Courant/TNS)

When college senior and dance teacher Olivia Carlson learned her employer had to temporarily close because of COVID-19, she found herself worrying about her students. She thought about the stress and isolation the young children may be feeling during quarantine.

“I was out of work … and thinking about all my kids at dance, about how they’re struggling during this quarantine, doing school online and not seeing their friends,” said Carlson, 22, who studies dance education and entrepreneurship at Central Connecticut State University.

While up late one night about two weeks ago, unable to sleep, Carlson came up with the idea for QuaranTine Bears, or QT Bears.

“My dad passed away last year from pancreatic cancer,” said Carlson. “A week before he passed, we got two bears together from Build-a-Bear … and that’s kind of how I got the idea. People need a teddy bear to comfort them.”

Every QT Bear sports a tiny mask and comes with a matching mask for a child, a list of tips on how children can stay safe during quarantine, and a handwritten note “from the bear” to kids who may feel self-conscious about wearing a mask.

Carlson ordered six bears online from a wholesaler and asked an aunt who was already making masks to teach her how to sew. It took her an hour just to make one mask at first, she said.

After completing the initial six sets, Carlson posted a photo of the six bears on Facebook thinking a few of her dance students might be interested. They sold out in three minutes, she said.

As of Thursday morning, she has sold more than 140 bears, and her inbox is flooded with more requests. Because her business model and production costs are still evolving, Carlson asks potential customers to message her privately for prices, which may fluctuate, she said.

“I had no idea of the response I was going to get,” said Carlson, who is also trying to figure out a way to generate revenue to be donated to charity. “It happened so fast.”

Like many college students, Carlson returned to her childhood home weeks ago after campuses shut down for quarantine. She and her mother set up a mask assembly line and designated a specific room for the QT Bears.

“Instead of doing one mask at a time, I do them step-by-step for 30 masks at a time,” she said, explaining that she also takes precautionary measures to ensure cleanliness.

As Carlson sews, her mother helps deliver the finished bears to local customers’ doorsteps.

“It’s been so helpful, I’m really thankful for her,” said Carlson. “I wanted to help all these kids, and I didn’t even realize how much I would be helping. It’s touched my heart so much.”

The bears also come with a slip of paper telling families how they can participate in the “Where’s QT Today?” photo challenge.

“It’s basically just so kids can have fun with their bear at home and take pictures of it,” Carlson said. “I’ve had kids send me pictures riding their bikes with their bears, sleeping with their bears, doing homework with their bears … a whole bunch of things. I thought that would keep them busy.”

Following the advice of her brother, Carlson recently filed to trademark the company’s name and establish an LLC.

“I definitely want to keep going with this and grow it,” she said. “My classes will be done in a week, so I will have even more free time.”

Carlson was able to get one final project for a marketing class out of the way. The professor had asked students to pitch a creative new product to sell.

“I emailed my teacher and he said, ‘Yeah, you don’t have to do that, you passed,’ “ she said.

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