US & Canada

Florida teen makes teddy bears from fallen police officers' uniforms

Megan O'Grady presents her Lt. Debra Clayton bear to her son Johnny, along with members of the officer's former squad Image copyright Orlando Police
Image caption Megan, 14, presented the first of her uniform bears this week

A 14-year-old girl is helping the families of fallen US police officers by handcrafting personalised teddy bears from the officer's own uniforms.

Florida resident Megan O'Grady, herself the daughter of a police officer, set up "Blue Line Bears" to create lasting mementoes for the children and family of those who die in the line of duty.

Each is made from uniforms provided by police departments - and personalised with the officer's badge and stripes.

The first were delivered this week.

"Out of all the gifts I have received, this is one of the best," Johnny Brinson, holding the first Blue Line Bear, said.

His mother, Lt Debra Clayton, was killed in the line of duty in Orlando on 9 January, when she confronted a dangerous wanted man. He shot her several times.

"I always hugged her in her uniform - even before she went to work, while she was on duty. Because we were that close - we talked every day, every hour," Johnny said.

"Seeing this patch, feeling it again … I'm very thankful for it, to make it - it's amazing. I love it. I really do."

Image copyright Orlando Police
Image caption Johnny, son of Lt Debra Clayton, received the very first handmade bear

The unusual idea came to Megan late last year, when she was assigned an essay at school - to write about something she believes in. She wrote about her father, and her belief that law enforcement officers are not appreciated for the risks they take.

Megan seems acutely aware that her father risks his life every time he goes on duty - and decided she wanted to do something for other families who suffered that loss.

"Because of my dad, I felt really bad for the children - I could relate," she said. "I thought there has to be some way I can help."

"And then I just thought of an idea that would reach out to them personally, and give them something that was a piece of their parent ... so they can hold that every single night and think of them."

Image copyright Blue Line Bears
Image caption Megan's grandmother helps with the sewing - though Megan says she's fast improving

On paper, Megan's parents run Blue Line Bears - because she is only 14. They handle the finance and administration - but it is up to Megan and her grandmother to hand-stitch and personalise every bear. That process takes about four days per bear.

On the front, each bear has a personalised, embroidered badge with the officer's name. On the back, their department's patch from the uniform is sewn on, and the uniform's buttons are used for eyes.

The charity suggests that shirts have collars and one patch removed before being sent, so they can never be used to impersonate an officer, and it works with victim's advocates to make contact with families.

Image copyright Blue Line Bears
Image caption Each bear is personalised, and includes the authentic badges and rank stripes from the uniform

The finishing touch on every bear is a medal of Saint Michael - the patron saint of police officers, and a nod to Megan's religious faith.

The idea has taken off, and uniforms have started to arrive from Orange County, New York, Las Vegas and more. Some died of medical issues, or in traffic accidents - but others were shot on duty.

Megan is very aware of where the material comes from.

"It was really hard for me to handle all the shirts that were coming in at once," she said - but she tries to look on it as "a sign that we can help."

But the delivery of the second set of bears, to the parents of Deputy Norman Lewis, "was extremely emotional for me," Megan said, despite her attempts to prepare herself.

Local news footage showed both Megan and Norman's mother embracing in tears.

"She was such a sweet lady," Megan said, "and it was worth every moment that I spent in the car driving up there in order to meet her."

Image copyright Blue Line Bears
Image caption The mother of Deputy Norman Lewis cried when presented with her bear

Her actions have won the over law enforcement officers, too.

Orlando's Chief of Police John Mina said he was "overcome with joy" when he learned that another officer's daughter was doing this for Lt Clayton's family.

"When I found out that they were going to actually be made out of Debra's uniform, it was hard not to get emotional. It just means the world to us," he said.

Megan and her grandmother only started production of the first Blue Line Bears after the first deaths of officers in 2017.

Right now, they have 10 to make - a substantial workload for a 14-year-old who is still at school. She hopes not to have to make too many this year.

But in recent years, between 100 and 150 police officers have died each year in the line of duty.

Megan hopes to bring more people on board to help - and will have to ship some of them - rather than skip school to deliver them personally.

And her father - who was her inspiration for the project - is drawing his own inspiration from Megan.

Writing on the Blue Line Bears Facebook page, he said: "The compassion, empathy and sympathy that is needed and shown by Mega ... is breathtaking"

"With all the craziness and unrest, it is good to know that there is still someone I can look up to and call my hero.

"Who knew that it would be my daughter?"

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