A troop of bears has taken over Justin Baum’s home.
Not the kind of bears with sharp claws that live in caves—rather the fuzzy, kid-friendly variety.
“My basement doubles as our company warehouse,” Baum says of his 2-year-old business, ZZZ Bears, which he runs out of his home in Country Club Estates. “My wife and I hand-assemble all the bear kits right here.”
ZZZ Bears makes a teddy bear dressed like a soldier—known as a Sgt. Sleeptight—that’s said to “protect children while they sleep from bad dreams and fear of the dark.” Baum got the idea to start the business while working as the creative director for an advertising agency in Atlanta. One of his clients back then was the U.S. Marines Corps, and Baum would travel to Marine bases across the globe while filming TV commercials. On one particular trip, he spotted a teddy bear wearing a Marines sweatshirt while shopping in the Marines Corps Exchange. He thought the bear might help his 5-year-old daughter, Emma, cope with her nighttime anxiety back home.
“She was basically just afraid of the dark and wasn’t sleeping at all,” he says. “So when I gave her the bear, I came up with a little story to go along with it. I said, ‘This is Marine bear, and he’s going to protect you while you sleep.’”
Sure enough, Emma slept soundly through the night. This led to an epiphany of sorts for Baum. “I realized that even kids recognize that a Marine soldier equals protection,” he says. “That’s where the Sgt. Sleeptight story begins.”
Baum moved his family to Winston-Salem in 2013 after taking a job at Mullen Lowe, and he’d create his first batch of Sgt. Sleeptights in 2015. Now, in addition to being available online at zzzbears.com, the bears are sold in every Marine, Navy, and Coast Guard Exchange in the world. Target also began selling Sgt. Sleeptight at 400 stores this spring as part of a two-month test run (including the store in Kernersville).
“We’ve had a modicum of success so far,” says Baum, 45. “But the thing that makes me proudest is that we’ve been able to donate more than 100 bears to children who’ve recently lost a parent in the line of duty.”
Each month, Baum receives the names of children who’ve lost a parent through a partnership he established with TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors). He then assembles the bears and ships them off to military bases, often including a handwritten letter penned in the voice of Sgt. Sleeptight.
“I’ve seen firsthand the impact that losing a loved one has on military kids,” he says. “It’s such a difficult time…I can’t even imagine. So if we can ease their pain and anxiety even just an inch, then it’s all totally worth it.”