Summer is the perfect time to run into Philip Brown. It’s the time of year when his alter ego has gone into summer hibernation.
Since 2001, Brown has portrayed the character of Kody O’Bear, the mascot behind Kody’s Kids, a charity provides education and collects supplies for newborns and young kids in Sussex County.
A native of Chestertown, Md., Brown was living in Philadelphia when he planned his first charity event: a party that raised money for Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The event collected teddy bears for children in the hospital.
After moving to the Cape Region in 1997, he said; "I wanted to do something similar. The newborn population in need was kind of underserved, and a lot of these kids need more than just a teddy bear.”
Since he started Kody’s Kids, Brown’s organization has collected and donated nearly $250,000 worth of baby items. He said the newborn program serves as a bridge from when the baby is born to when families can receive assistance.
Brown said the character allows him to be a bit more outgoing than he otherwise is. In person, Brown is laid-back and deliberate, with a sneaky sense of humor, standing just over 6 feet tall with glasses and a moustache. Unlike most bears, Kody hibernates in the summer instead of winter, mainly because the suit gets too hot, Brown said. Kody is active from September to May.
“We don’t need Kody passing out in front of people and causing therapy for children for years to come,” Brown said.
Now retired, Brown spent his career at Wilford Academy, a trade school for adults. His family vacationed in the Cape Region, and he also has relatives who live here.
“It’s a slower pace,” Brown said of the Cape Region. “You find a nice, giving community, which is nice when you’re running a charity.”
Although he does not have children of his own, Brown said, “If it's taking care of kids and caring about them, I have a little over 3,000.” He said he relates to the kids he comes in contact with through the early-learning program.
“I was one of those kids. I had a hard time learning. I had ADD, hypertension, the whole works. But back when I was in school, you were just called lazy. So I know how it feels when you don’t understand when someone is saying something, you have to see it,” Brown said. “It’s part of our mission, but it's also a very personal thing for me as well.”
When he founded the charity in 2001, Brown saw that other charities have some kind of mascot. After brainstorming, Brown thought about the teddy bears he includes with care baskets for newborns.
The costume was originally a Halloween costume, Brown said, but as the character started to grow, there was a need to make him more pleasant-looking. Thanks to donations from supporters, Brown was able to work with a firm that made mascot outfits for sports teams to come up with a new Kody outfit. To give Kody more personality, Brown has since added glasses, a bowtie, a bright-colored vest and Chuck Taylor sneakers to the costume.
Three years ago, Kody was given the ability to talk, mostly as a way to communicate with kids and adults.
“Now he won’t shut up,” Brown joked.
With his ability to talk, Kody took a more active role in Kody’s Kids’ early-learning program, which works with preschools, libraries and Head Start centers to help children work on learning colors, letters, words and shapes, as well as learning about healthy eating. The early-learning program enlists the help of 10 volunteer teachers.
The program is reviewed each time they go out to a class; Brown said one of the most emotional experiences for him was getting a package from a school in Dagsboro where had Kody appeared. The kids had signed a large picture of Kody and sent it to Brown thanking the team for the program.
“It really set it in stone: this is why we do what we do,” he said.
Brown is taking Kody’s Kids to another level by creating two new awards: the Kody O’Bear Community Service Award, which honors a small business that has given back to the community. In 2014, he said, the plan is to create the Kody O’Bear Student Award for kids between 13 and 18 years old for community service.
In addition, Brown said Kody’s Kids is working on founding its own team for the annual Lewes Polar Bear Plunge. He said he has been offered to take the Kody show on the road to as far away as Baltimore, but Brown has preferred to stay local.
For Brown, the reward of playing Kody is simple.
“The look in people’s eyes, especially kids,” he said. “When he walks in, the expressions are priceless. If you find a passion that you really enjoy, then you’re not working. When this started, I really realized what it was to make other people happy.”
For more information on Kody’s Kids, visit www.kodyskids.com.