Author: Cole Zercoe
Megan O’Grady can’t recall how she came up with the idea. She had never sewn anything in her life and her family didn’t own a sewing machine. She just knew she had to give families something to hold on to – a piece of what they’d lost.
She learned every step from her grandmother – how to stuff, sew and embroider. Constructing each bear was a lengthy process. She had to cut the uniform, stuff the head, body and limbs, and stitch the pieces together. Then add the eyes and nose, and embroider a shield on the chest, personalized to include the officer’s last name and badge number. She placed stripes on the shoulder for rank or service, and a blue ribbon around the neck. A St. Michael medal, blessed by a priest, draped over the trunk. Finally, the end of watch date was added on the bottom of the right foot.
Handling the uniform was the hardest part; not because of the cutting or construction, but in knowing what the uniform meant to a child. As the daughter of a police sergeant, she knew each uniform held the smell of the father or mother who wore it every day, and a thousand memories. The familiar feeling of the material against her skin was a reminder of daily hugs good-bye. The sight of the uniform triggered a sense of comfort and protection. The uniform was who they were. Their body was gone, but their uniform remained.
It took two days to make each bear; a substantial amount of time for an honors student balancing school, track, cross country, bowling and the video club. She’d work on them between homework assignments or carve out time during weekends. Sometimes the backlog grew to double digits. Sometimes she felt overwhelmed. But ultimately, Megan didn’t mind. It was just two days in exchange for something she hoped would last the recipient a lifetime.
‘WHAT HAPPENS TO THE FAMILIES?’
The news ticker flashed the words that changed Megan’s life forever. She knew her father faced risk as a police officer, but she always told herself he’d come home safe. That bedrock was cracked on July 7, 2016, after five police officers were ambushed and killed. The risk was graver than she’d realized. Such an attack could happen anywhere. It could even happen in her home town of Coral Springs, Florida. She couldn’t shake the images of panicked faces illuminated by red and blue lights. What if it was her dad, Patrick, out there on that horrific night in Dallas?
“She asked me what happens to the families. I told her everyone rallies around them, but after a while, they don’t talk to them as frequently. And then it becomes an annual event,” Patrick said.
“Then she asked me what happens to the kids. I said that eventually, while they are not forgotten, they won’t be in the forefront. She put herself in their shoes and she wanted to do something.”
That conversation was the beginning of Megan’s project to help the families of fallen officers – particularly children – cope with their loss. She wanted to give them something that would help keep the memory of their loved one alive, which is when she came up with the idea of bears made from the uniforms of the fallen. She coined the project “Blue Line Bears.”
A LASTING KEEPSAKE
Megan does most the heavy lifting herself. She raised the money for a sewing machine via gofundme and made her first bear in January 2017. Her parents weren’t surprised when she expressed her desire to launch such an ambitious project at such a young age.
“She is very mature for her age,” her mother, Suzie, said. “She’s always been very close with her dad and the men and women he works with. From when she was little, she would bake them brownies and cupcakes. She’s always had a respect for men and women in uniform. With all that in mind, it wasn’t a huge surprise. But I don’t think we thought it was ever going to get this big.”
Since the launch of the project, the family has shipped bears to 29 states and Canada. Despite an ever-increasing number of requests, Megan still handles the bulk of creating each bear. Suzie helps with the paperwork and, along with Megan’s grandmother, puts finishing touches on the bears. Patrick makes initial contact with every family of a fallen officer and handles the project’s online presence. The cost of the bears is covered by the O’Gradys through a combination of donations and their own money.
“I feel like police have become the enemy of society instead of recognized for their service. My message is to not only remember those who have fallen when they sacrifice themselves, but to try to stop what’s happening and get people to realize that there’s a face and a person behind every single badge,” said Megan.
SONS AND DAUGHTERS
Every bear tells a story of bravery and tragedy, with the inscription on the right foot marking the day all law enforcement families fear most. Lieutenant Debra Clayton, a wife and mother who was shot to death while attempting to apprehend a wanted murder suspect: EOW 1.9.2017. Officer Charles Hartfield, a married father of two who was killed while rendering aid to the wounded during the Las Vegas massacre: EOW 10.1.17. Detective Steven McDonald, who left behind a wife and son after complications from gunshot wounds he received 31 years earlier: EOW 1.10.2017.
The sons and daughters of the fallen range in age from just born to over 50. The uniforms belong to LEOs killed in the line of duty as far back as 39 years ago. Nearly 300 bears represent hundreds of families whose lives were shattered when their heroes were taken too soon.
Megan hand-delivers as many bears as she can. She’s met with spouses, children, friends, relatives and colleagues during her multi-state trips. Every meeting is different; none of them are easy.
While some families talk about their loved one, other families are silent, their faces telling the story words cannot. Some visits are heart-rending: A mother in tears, shouting her son’s name as she embraced Megan. Others are transcendental: a red cardinal – a spirit messenger according to legend – watching the O’Gradys from a single, leafless tree in Central Park during the family’s chance reunion with a fallen Florida LEO’s family.
“You have no idea what you’re going to walk into,” Suzie said. “It’s hard to know what to say, so you just try to listen.”
The impact of the bears is particularly evident among the children. One girl expressed her desire to carry the bear in lieu of flowers during her eventual wedding. Another young girl who hadn’t been able to sleep alone since her father passed finally managed to after receiving the keepsake.
“That’s really what she had in mind when she came up with Blue Line Bears,” Suzie said. “That the children would have something to hold on to in their dark times to remember their parent.”
Dealing with death is a heavy burden to bear at any age. As a young teen, Megan has been exposed to more of it than most face in a lifetime. Initially, her parents worried about the toll the project could take on her.
“At the beginning, it was all just a theory – an idea that she had,” Suzie said. “Then, in January 2017, there were two officers who were killed very close to where we live. That’s when it became very real. She was very emotional. I told her if it was too much, then maybe we shouldn’t move forward.”
She encouraged Megan, who attends the same Catholic high school where Suzie works as an administrator, to talk to her priest for guidance.
“After that, she said she felt like God was calling her to try to do something to make a difference in people’s lives – to bring some peace to those families.”
Over time, Megan has learned how to harness the power of the good she’s brought into people’s lives to overcome the weight of the tragedies that led to her work in the first place. Ultimately, she says, the mission has made her stronger.
“I have hard days where I get upset over things that will happen to police officers,” Megan said. “But I keep looking at what I have done, how thankful the families are, and that’s what keeps me going. Just realizing that this is what I do and I’m going to keep doing it so I can keep making a difference.”
“She’s got a level of compassion for the families that at 15 years old is amazing,” Patrick said. “She realizes that could be her one day. And she wants to know that if something happened to me, she and my wife and family would never be forgotten.”
Megan views Blue Line Bears as a lifetime commitment. Her goal is to provide a bear for every family of the fallen who wants to receive one. And her job just got a little easier: a company recently donated a new machine to the project that cuts the stuffing time from over an hour to around 20 minutes.
“I plan to keep it going for generations to come,” said Megan. “I want to always be there for the families because there are always going to be officers who lose their life in the line of duty. It’s our job as the police community to be there for them.”
When the body is gone, where does the spirit go? For a 15-year-old girl in Coral Springs, the spirit is everywhere. It’s in the faces of every friend, family member and colleague of the fallen. It’s in a cardinal watching from a tree in Central Park. And it’s in a uniform, fashioned into a bear, held tight by a child sleeping soundly – dreaming of hugging their parent goodbye.