KISSIMMEE | As Megan O’Grady stood in the lobby of the Kissimmee Police Department Jan. 15, she looked both kind and anxious.
The Bishop Verot High School sophomore, accompanied by her parents, her little brother and her grandmother, made the three-hour car ride with precious cargo. Megan is the founder of Blue Line Bears, a project in which families of police officers killed in the line of duty can have a teddy bear handmade from a uniform shirt of the fallen officer.
School was out in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, so Megan and her family arranged for a meet-and-greet in Osceola County. In her possession were five bears — one for the family of Sgt. Richard “Sam” Howard and four for the family Officer Matthew Baxter. Both officers of the Kissimmee Police Department were shot in the line of duty following a routine stop. Baxter died Aug. 18, shortly after the shooting, and Howard died the following day, Aug. 19.
Megan is dedicated to her project and the meaning behind showing support to families so much like her own. Her father, Patrick, is a sergeant for the Cape Coral Police Department, so sharing the grief and honoring the memories of a fallen officer hit the teen close to home.
“I’ve learned that a lot of people judge other people by looking at their occupation and stuff,” Megan said. “But behind the badge, there is a lot more. There is a person and a family that everyone can relate to. They are just normal people doing their job.”
Along with the O’Grady family, three other families gathered in the Kissimmee Police Department lobby — Billie Jo Russell, the widow of Sgt. Howard; Sadia Baxter, the widow of Officer Baxter; and half a dozen members of the police department family. Two of Sadia’s three children — Zarah and Sofia — played around while awaiting the informal presentation. The oldest Baxter child — Sariah — held a soft smile and eagerly posed in front of the framed memorial of her father.
After some chitchat, Megan spoke about Blue Line Bears — its mission and purpose. And then she distributed the bears. On the bear dedicated to Howard is the name “Unique,” for Howard’s daughter who could not make the ceremony because she was working.
The Baxter family sent four shirts to produce four different bears. Embroidered on the right foot of each bear is the name of each family member, so mom and each of the three girls got their own bear. When asked what she would name her bear, Sariah said, “Officer Matt. His last name is Baxter, of course.”
Both widows hugged and thanked Megan and asked how old she was. When Megan answered, “15,” both women revealed their admiration. This was a deeply emotional project for a teen to spearhead.
“It’s amazing she is doing this. It brings us so much support,” Sadia said. “It means a lot to our family.”
The project’s emotional impact is not lost on either Megan or her mother, Suzie. Megan admitted it is “really hard sometimes” to make the bears and think of the loss suffered by the families, and then add to that a meeting that could be filled with emotion.
“I’m coping with it more and dealing with it,” Megan said. “In the beginning, it was hard to get over it.”
The first bears Megan made were for two officers killed in the line of duty in Orlando — Orlando Police Lt. Debra Clayton and Orange County Sheriff Deputy Norman Lewis. As she gave away the bears to Clayton’s son and Lewis’ mother, she “realized what I was doing was right.”
“(Clayton’s) was one of the first families I made bears for and the hardest one for me to cope with,” Megan said. “But giving the bears to her son gave me a sense of accomplishment. I realized that this is actually helping families.”
The O’Gradys met each family separately, and each meeting was emotional and unforgettable. Suzie remembered how Lewis’ mother broke down and cried as she hugged Megan. The O’Grady family compassionately listened to the mother talk about her son.
“There wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” Suzie recalled
A year later as Megan recalled those first meetings, she worked so her voice wouldn’t crack. She said she tried to separate the project from her social life and her school life. But then something might happen at school that would spark a memory of the Clayton family and their loss. “I would start freaking out,” she said, but added that didn’t in any way make her want to stop her project.
Suzie, who serves as assistant principal of administration at Bishop Verot High School, recognized Megan’s empathy and dedication. She asked Father Casey Jones, Verot chaplain, to speak with Megan about her feelings and experiences.
“It always makes me angry when someone dies in the line of duty,” Megan said. “But after talking with some family and (Father Jones) I know there is nothing really to do to stop police officers from dying on duty. It’s going to happen, and there’s nothing I can do to change the circumstances. What I can do is help afterwards and that’s what I do.”
In the past year, Suzie has noticed how much her daughter has matured and grown.
“It’s been a remarkable change in her on so many levels,” she said. “She is passionate, focused and driven. Good things have come out of this for her, getting to meet these families and going to these events.”
To date, Suzie estimated the project has produced 214 bears, each bear taking one to two days to produce. While Megan declared January 2016 as the start date, she said the family began making prototypes of bears for two months before. She laughed as she recalled what some of the first bears looked like, adding they look much better now, thanks to learning from sewing and embroidery tutorials on YouTube.
Putting the bears together involves an assembly line, where pieces are embroidered with badges, ranks, names, and the dates for the EOW — end of watch. Around the neck of each bear is a ribbon holding a St. Michael the Archangel medal, patron saint of law enforcement officers, which was blessed by a priest. Megan also started a group at Bishop Verot that stuffs bears after school every other Wednesday.
A Gofundme account (/blue-line-bears) draws donations for material, equipment and travel expenses. Most bears are mailed out, but personal deliveries have also been made in Oklahoma, Las Vegas, Dallas and New York City. In May, Megan was invited to attend National Police Week to speak about Blue Line Bears and run in a 5K.
The project takes a lot of time, and the teen must juggle school and a social life along with it. But Megan said the project is worth it because it allows her to learn more about herself and give back in a tangible, yet empathetic, way.
“I started to question everything a little bit more,” Megan said about decisions and choices and her own faith life. “But this is God’s work I’ve been doing. There’s no point in questioning it.”
For more information on Blue Line Bears, visit www.bluelinebears.org or www.facebook.com/bluelinebears.