Megan O’Grady is a 16 year old high school student living with her family in the state Florida where her father is a police sergeant for the Cape Coral Police Department. In January 2017, she started a non-profit called Blue Line Bears to help children and families of fallen officers cope with their loss. She utilizes the uniform shirt of the fallen officer to make a one-of-a-kind teddy bear, and she’s given away at the time of this interview 454 bears in 36 states including one in Canada. Megan has been honored as ABC World News Tonight’s person of the week, and she’s appeared on the Today Show and countless other news programs to talk about her work.
In This Episode, You Will Learn:
- How Megan came up with the idea for Blue Line Bears.
- What she experienced while making and delivering the very first bear.
- How her parents supported the idea and how her family now works as a team.
- What you can do to support your own kids when they come to you with what may seem like a crazy idea.
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Megan, thank you so much for taking time to hang with us today.
Thank you for having me.
We’ve heard a little bit about Blue Line Bears already, but I want to hear your version of the story; how did you come up with this idea?
In 2016 there was an attack on Dallas and five officers were killed. After that I really wanted to step up and do something for the families and to help them. Losing my dad is my worst fear and I know that those families have to face that every day. I just wanted to reach out and help them try to cope with their loss.
Your dad is a police officer – did you go to your mom and dad and say, “Hey, I want to do something,” and they helped you come up with the idea? Or did you already have the idea immediately?
Well, after the attack on Dallas, I actually had to write an essay for school and I had to write about something I believed in. So, I talked about how I believed in law enforcement. A few months later I ended up getting accepted into a club at school and a requirement of the club was that I needed to complete a project by my senior year. That’s when I came up with the idea of the bears. I went to my mom and dad and said, “This is what I want to do.” They supported me 100% and that’s really where it all started.
Did you even know how to sew when you came up with this idea?
No, actually I came up with the idea and I had no idea of how to do any of it. My mom was asking me if I was sure that I wanted to go through with it. She thought maybe I could pick something a little easier, but all I could tell her was that this was something I had to do. My grandma actually taught me to how to sew. For the embroidery part of the bear, I actually watched YouTube to learn how to do that.
Some of our listeners may not have seen one of your bears yet, so we really encourage them to go to your website and check them out at www.bluelinebears.org. For those who haven’t seen them yet, describe what this bear looks like. How are they made? What do they look like?
They are made entirely out of the uniform shirt of the fallen officer. Where you would see the patches on the officer’s arm, the patches are on the bear’s arm also and the buttons from the uniform make up the eyes and nose. On the chest is a little shield pattern that has the name and number of the officer and on the paws, it has “Blue Line Bears” on one foot and the end of watch date on the other one. Then on one of the bear’s hands we’ve put the name of who it is going to and around its neck is a St. Michael’s medal.
What exactly is a St. Michael’s medal?
St. Michael is the patron saint of police officers. It’s just a medal to recognize them.
So, because of your faith that was something you wanted to integrate into the bear?
Take us back to the very first bear. Do you remember what month and year that was at?
Actually, the officer had died a little bit over a week into the new year; it was January 2017. I started the non-profit January 1st, 2017 and then on January 7th an officer was killed in the line of duty. We didn’t end up getting in contact with them until a little bit after that though. Shortly after that there were two officers killed back to back in the Orlando area, both in the same incident – this was two days after the 7th. So, the first bear I ever made was for Deborah Clayton from the Orlando PD. That bear was definitely the hardest to make because I was not prepared for all of the emotions I would feel. I knew it was going to be sad because the whole topic makes me sad, but I wasn’t prepared for breaking down as much as I did. When I first received Deborah’s shirt, I looked at it and I kind of just took it all in. A few days later it all ended up coming back to me when I was having a discussion in class about good versus evil. I just broke down and I couldn’t control myself. That’s why her bear was definitely the hardest to make and after that breakdown at school I was asked, “Are you sure I want to do this?” They didn’t know if I could handle it mentally and they told me there was nothing wrong with not being able to do it. But I knew I needed to do it.
So, Deborah Clayton was the officer that received this first bear – it went to her loved ones?
How old was her son?
He was in his 20’s.
As far as the actual construction of the bear, how did you figure that out? Did your grandmother help you with that?
I started planning for Blue Line Bears in November 2016. I actually went through three bear patterns before I found the one that I liked. So, we made sure we had worked out all of the little kinks and anything else that could go wrong before we started with the actual shirt. We had about 3 or 4 prototype bears and we made sure that we had everything perfect before starting. It wasn’t really that bad to do.
How much of the bears do you sew yourself?
My grandma and my mom both help me. We all kind of do little parts of it. It really just depends on what part of the bear you are talking about. But my grandma and I do most of the sewing
So that first bear, because you live in Florida and that was in the Orlando area, you were able to meet directly with Deborah’s son?
Yes, I was.
What was that experience like? What was it like setting up the meeting? Did you go to their home? What did you say? What did they say? Take me there.
I actually met him at the Orlando Police Department. A lot of her co-workers were there and a lot of her friends were there also. I wasn’t sure what to do so I just explained the bear to him and gave it to him. He said something along the lines of, “I never thought I was going to be able to feel my mom’s uniform again. Now here it is and I feel like I’m holding a piece of her.” That’s what was really important to me about making the bears in the first place. To hear those reactions and hear that what you are doing is worth the time and the effort.
Were you crying? I would have been bawling. What was going through your head and heart?
It was so hard mentally. Going through it, I was good for about five or ten minutes and then as soon as it all started hitting me, I walked over to my dad and I hugged him and I started crying. It was really hard.
What a meaningful experience for everybody. I’m sure all the officers were all deeply touched. How many deliveries have you done? Or how many bears I should say?
Four-hundred and fifty four bears? One, that’s staggering that you’ve done that much work and it’s also staggering the amount of loss that that represents. But on the other hand, it is also representative of the beauty and the hope and the joy that you are bringing people with this gift. It’s just really powerful. That is really inspiring.
Obviously that first delivery was incredibly moving and I’m sure every delivery is moving in some way, but are there other particular deliveries that stand out in your mind as being extra memorable?
There are a few. I actually I can’t deliver all of them in person because of school and everything else, but there are quite a few families that we still have a close relationship with. That same day that I delivered the bears to Deborah Clayton’s son – I delivered two, one to her son and one to her husband. But that same day I delivered bears for Norm Lewis who died in a motorcycle accident responding to Deborah being killed in the line of duty. That one was probably one of the hardest I’ve ever done. Deborah’s was the hardest to make, but then I think Norm’s was the hardest to deliver. He didn’t have any kids or anything, but I gave it to his parents and his dad was sick. His dad ended up dying a few months later, but his mom was just still heartbroken over it. When I gave her the bear, she just grabbed me and pulled me into a hug and then started yelling, “Oh Norm, I miss you.” That right there was the hardest one for sure. She started talking about all the things that he had done in his life and he really didn’t deserve any of this. He didn’t deserve to pass away. None of them do, but that one was probably the most emotional just because of that embrace that I had with her.
Not only have made a huge impact, but you’ve gotten quite a bit of attention. You’ve been given awards all over the place. You are doing amazing things. What do your fellow classmates think of all this? Are they asking for bears?
It’s so different with everyone. I don’t talk about it much, because I don’t want to come across as bragging or anything. My friends are super supportive of me but there are also some kids who are not supportive of it whatsoever. So, I do get some negative comments but it’s not directly about the bears, if that makes sense?
It’s more just their personal issues.
Yeah, I think its more jealousy.
What would you say is the most difficult thing – besides the emotional part, because that must be very challenging, but what is the most difficult thing about starting and running Blue Line Bears?
Starting and running it? I’d say the hardest part starting it was just getting it up and running. I started off and I had zero money for it. I didn’t know what to do to raise money, so I started a GoFundMe and was able to get a sewing machine. From there I had to learn how to do everything else. Running it, I think the hardest part is just maintaining balance because I have school, sports and then Blue Line Bears. It’s very hard to keep that balance.
What sports are you playing right now?
I’m in track right now and I run cross-country.
That’s a lot to handle. You’ve got practice after school – are you working on Blue Line Bears mainly on weekends? Or both evening and weekends?
I try to put an hour every night towards one bear and then on the weekends I will just sit down and sew a bunch.
Who handles all the administrative aspects? Are you looking for families to be able to donate the bears for or do they come to you? Who fields those calls or emails and handles all that communication? Is that something you do or do your parents help with that?
It’s honestly a bit mix of all of us. When my dad doesn’t have work or if he’s on his break or and I’m at school, he’s respond to emails and he’ll keep up with Facebook messages. But if it’s the other way around, I will. If my mom isn’t busy, she will too. It’s really a combination of all of us. As far as reaching out to departments, we actually have an app that notifies us that an officer has passed away in the line of duty. We use that app to get names and police departments and then my dad will reach out. It’s easier for a police officer to reach out to a police department then it would be for me to do it.
Wow, so it’s a total family experience. What a powerful moment. Do you have any siblings?
I have two.
Are they involved in the project at all?
My little brother helps with stuffing sometimes if he’s up to it. My older brother is starting to get involved with it a little bit.
That’s great. If a middle schooler or a high school student were listening to this and they had an idea to start something – if they have an idea of wanting to make a difference in the world in a positive way, what would you say to them? What advice would you give them?
I would say, don’t hold back. In the beginning there was a lot of questions that people had for me. “Oh, how are you going to do this? How are you going to make this possible?” I just said that I will figure it out if you will back me up. I think it’s important for a lot of high schoolers and middle schoolers to understand that if you are passionate about something, it’s not someone else’s responsibility to do it. It’s yours. So, you need to step up and take responsibility for what you believe in and go out there and take action. There are a lot of things that I could fix in the world or that I would fix in the world, but everyone is different and everyone views things differently. It’s important for everyone to step up and do what they believe in.
How about if their mom or dad were listening? What would you say to them?
The one thing that helped me the most when I was getting started was the support from my parents. They would ask me questions about details, but they weren’t discouraging me. They were trying to help me learn how to problem solve before the problems came up. They supported me from the get-go and they never pushed me down. I think it’s really important for parents to understand that there is a lot of pressure on kids to be perfect. I’m not perfect by any means and my parents don’t expect me to be. But if your child is passionate about something, I think they should be supported and they should be able to pursue what they believe in. Even if the parent doesn’t believe in it.
How do you fund the bears? How do you raise money to support making the bears and shipping them out?
I sell t-shirts and all sorts of stuff on my website, it’s on Facebook too. I have a GoFundMe account and PayPal and then sell t-shirts. I have some small fundraisers that I do also.
If people want to support you, they can go to your website at www.bluelinebears.org and they can make a donation or they can go to your Facebook page, there are some really cool t-shirts.
Here is a question for you, I think I might know the answer, but I may not – would you consider selling bears that didn’t have the officer’s items on them if people were interested in buying the bears as a way to support you? Have you ever been asked that before?
It’s really hard because we’ve definitely debated raising money by selling the bears and stuff. I personally think that the bears should be reserved only for people who have fallen in the line of duty. That’s what they stand for. They are memory bears. They are made in memory of someone who has fallen in the line of duty. I kind of think it would be a bad idea to make it for someone who hasn’t fallen in the line of duty. I don’t think it’s a good idea because it’s kind of taking away from the point of the bears, if that makes sense?
I knew you’d say that, but I had to ask you. I knew you’d say that because that’s the point of the bear. It’s this special gift for loved ones. I knew you’d be like, “Heck no, I’m not going to sell you a bear. That would take away the point.” I get it. They are really cute bears, they are amazing and they are just beautiful.
Alright, so if people want to check out the bears and support you go to www.bluelinebears.org. If they have had an officer that’s fallen in their family, I assume they could reach out to you as well?
Megan, I admire what you are doing. I love your entrepreneurial spirit. You are doing something to make a difference in the world. I love your heart behind it. I love that it’s a family experience. I’m just cheering you on. Keep going, keep expanding. Keep doing new things. It’s so cool. Great job!
Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.