By Dawn Arden
Public Affairs Office
A program dubbed Bears and Blankets, a community policing effort by the Directorate Emergency Services with the help of the Survivor Outreach Services, is bringing comfort to children and families across the installation one bear at a time.
The initiative officially began when Jody Carmack, SOS support coordinator, and members of Fort Leonard Wood’s SOS Coffee Group reached out in 2017 and presented DES with several stuffed animals and handmade blankets as a way to give back to the community. According to Carmack, Bears and Blankets was designed to help survivors stay connected with the military community and to assist them on their “grief journey.”
“Through the years I have realized that part of this journey usually comes to a point where the survivor begins to want to give back or to help others,” Carmack said. “This was a project any survivor could participate in, either find stuffed animals to donate or make one of the no-sew fleece blankets.”
Fort Leonard Wood Police Chief James Stewart said originally the idea was to present the items to children involved in traumatic situations in which law enforcement officers were called.
“Whenever law enforcement responds to an incident, it is normally not the best of scenarios, and a lot of times there are small children present that may be impacted or just need something to distract them while we speak with those involved,” Stewart said. “Having something like a stuffed animal or a blanket allows us to comfort a child during what might have been a significant emotional event.”
Since there are not a lot of serious incidents that take place on Fort Leonard Wood, Stewart said they still have quite a few of the original bears and blankets left. These original items are currently saved for instances of significantly emotional events where the officer encounters a child in need of comfort.
However, the partnership formed with SOS since that time allows the department to interact with children during their day-to-day policing in the housing areas.
Jason Ploss, Department of the Army Civilian supervisory police officer, said the stuffed animals are beneficial in building positive relationships with families living on Fort Leonard Wood.
“I give out the stuffed animals as I notice an opportunity or situation that warrants positive enforcement. It may be a child walking his bike across the crosswalk instead of riding, or (if) I notice a crying child and parents are having the difficult time,” Ploss said. “(I also) give them to children that wave to law enforcement and have an excited and positive attitude when we conduct presence patrolling in the housing areas.”
Ploss added, when asking parents for permission to give their child a gift, he has received been nothing but support.
“It has always been a positive experience,” he said. “Not only in seeing the smile on the kids’ faces, knowing I just made their day, but I also see the gratitude from the parents.”
The officers’ efforts do not go unnoticed, and they were recently contacted by a deployed Soldier whose daughter was having a hard time dealing with his absence.
“For the second year in a row a DAC police officer, while driving through my neighborhood, took time out of his day to pass out teddy bears to all the kids,” said Capt. Matthew Yokubaitis in an email. “I can’t tell you how thankful my family and I are, as that little girl struggles with me being gone. Little moments like that truly make a significant difference in creating a positive image and building trust in the local law enforcement. I hope he knows what a positive and significant impact he had.”
Yokubaitis added, “It’s the little moments like this in my career that truly makes me proud to be a part of the military police family.”
Ploss said the toys always come with the advice of listening to their parents and staying out of trouble, but it’s mostly just about the children having fun and enjoying themselves.
According to Stewart, the partnership with the Fort Leonard Wood SOS and the program are still running strong with more stuffed animals and small toys still being donated.
Stewart said all law enforcement officers have access to the locker where the items are stored and have the ability to stock up on items in their patrol vehicles as needed.