Many have memories of loved ones that they can’t bear to let fade away over time.
Ben and Kelly Kowaleski of Tony and their daughters Kasey and Brooke will never forget their son and brother, who died accidentally 11 years ago—Sept. 20, 2008—when he fell while carrying a loaded gun and was struck by a bullet.
Coping with the accident and its aftermath was unbearable, not just for their own family but his classmates, football team, friends, neighbors and the community as a whole.
To help her through her grief, Kelly fell back on what had always brought her joy, her longtime hobby of sewing.
She has enjoyed sewing since her grandpa taught her to hand sew since the age of 6. “I had the best Barbie clothes in first grade,” she quipped.
He had learned to sew in a factory, and she eventually did as well, working at Artisans of Glen Flora.
Both she and her husband graduated from Flambeau High School, and both returned there to work—she as a special education aide and he as a custodian. She had stayed home for 9 years when their kids were young, and took an aide job once they had all started school. She loved it and did that for 20 years.
Thankfully they had that network of support when they needed it.
“For Christmas that year, I came up with an idea. He loved hunting bear, and I’ve always had a passion for teddy bears.
“It kind of just came about,” she shared. “I took some of his clothes. I cried with the first few cuts of the fabric. It was just hard cutting it up, but I was doing it to keep his memory alive.
“There was nothing more intended,” Kelly said. “I just started out making bears for our two girls and two of my friends who helped me through it all.”
She drew up her own patterns for the first few she made. They were 9-inch with jointed legs that could sit on a shelf or mantle.
Although she didn’t have the same passion she usually does for her sewing projects, she went through the familiar motions. Her sewing machine is set up right next to the living room, where Brady watched TV or played video games. She could always hear what was going on in that room while she stitched away.
“I missed him so much,” she said. “It was so quiet. My passion wasn’t there, but I made them and gave them away.”
That selfless act of trying to soothe others’ grief helped soothe her own.
“They loved them,” she said. “So I decided to make some for his best friends. I just gave them to them, and the feeling I got was wonderful. It made me feel happy because people would remember Brady when they looked at the bears.”
Then she had another idea that led to leaving her job at the school and focusing entirely on helping others through what her family had just been through.
“I said to my husband, ‘I wonder if I could make bears for other people if they would get the same feeling.”
It was worth a try. Through word of mouth, Kelly offered to make bears for others as a way to remember their loved ones.
She said families tenderly handed over denims, flannels and red hankies worn or used by a grandpa, uncle, brother or mother, and she stitched that care into soft and cuddly bears.
“After about a year, a friend helped me to set up a website, and I had to have a name,” Kelly said. “I love bears. Bear Memories just seemed to work, and that’s how it got its name.”
She still loves school kids, but a year after her daughters, who were between the age of Brady, had graduated, she left her job at the school to concentrate full-time on her new desire to make losses more bearable for others. She’s been doing it for 6 years and hasn’t regretted it yet.
Through website orders, she has shipped bears all over Wisconsin and Minnesota as well as Virginia, Louisiana, Arizona and California. She has made them to remember all ages—stillborn to 99.
She said making keepsakes to remember stillborns have been the most heart-wrenching.
The seamstress said one was the third or fourth baby in family and the big brother was taking it hard that he wouldn’t have a new playmate. They didn’t have any clothing, so they sent crocheted and flannel blankets to use on the bears.
The other family of a stillborn had a plaster cast of her tiny hands that were put as a charm on a ribbon around a bear’s neck.
She doesn’t label the bears in any way, wanting the bears to be entirely focused on the ones they are meant to honor and memorialize.
Officer Glaze pillows
Her anonymity suddenly changed on Oct. 29, 2016, the day deputy Dan Glaze of the Rusk County Sheriff’s Office was shot and killed while on the job.
“God placed a big job in my lap,” Kelly said. “Two friends contacted me to make pillows out of Deputy Glaze’s uniforms for his children to present to them at the funeral.”
Due to the chaos of the situation, Kelly didn’t get the uniforms until Thursday evening. She stayed up until 2 a.m. working on them so they would be ready for the funeral the next morning.
Videos and photos of the Glaze children with the pillows at the funeral were broadcast all across the country.
Still when Wisconsin Public Television contacted her for a story about the pillows and bears she makes, she was skeptical of their intentions.
“I told them, ‘this is very close to my heart’ and I do it for the memories, not the fame. If this is a scam, it is very cruel.”
Once the station convinced her it was not a scam, sent credentials and said asked her to share how her work started with keeping the memory of her son alive, she agreed.
It was a long wait—3 years since she made the uniform pillows for the Glaze family—when the clip finally aired on Oct. 24, on Wisconsin Life as one of the first programs to kick off its seventh season. View it online at WisconsinLife.org.
Wisconsin Life is a partnership project of Wisconsin Public Television and Wisconsin Public Radio.
Sarah King Glaze, wife of the late deputy Dan Glaze, said Kelly’s quick work to convert his officer uniforms into pillows of comfort was amazing.
“To this day, they sit on the kids’ beds,” she said.
She added, “I recently reached out to her to have her repurpose some of Dan’s other clothes. She is creating a T-shirt quilt for my son and a bear for my youngest daughter as well as other pieces.
“For me, Dan’s closet was one of the hardest things to face after he died. It was a concentrated area of memories. Each item of clothing could be tied to an event, big or small—the outfit he wore the day our daughter was born, the shirt he wore in the last picture taken of him.
“Getting rid of his clothes felt like removing another piece of him from our lives. Instead, having Kelly create keepsakes, gives us exposure to those memories and keeps them alive. I have no doubt they will be treasured by our kids.”
“Kelly has a very special gift of being able to heal hearts through the bears she creates,” said Lyn Yotter of Ladysmith. “After my dad passed away, I had Kelly make bears for each one of my dad’s great-grandchildren out of his shirts. These bears were given out at Christmas and made us all feel that dad was a part of our holiday celebration.”
She added, “Kelly started making bears to heal her broken heart, but along the way she has healed hundreds of others. She has a true, God-given gift, an angel in disguise.”
Ann Lund of ? shared, “The first bear that I had Kelly make for me, I gave to my dad for Christmas. We had recently lost my uncle, my dad’s last remaining sibling. While going through my uncle’s belongings, we found an old Army uniform of his. He was in the army until the late 1970s and served during the Korean War. I decided to check with Kelly to see if she would be willing to take on the project of making an Army bear for my dad. She, of course, said that she would love to take on that project. She had never done one with an Army uniform before and had a lot of ideas. The bear turned out amazing. She used different pieces of the clothing, including the patches, buttons and the liner of the coat to make this treasure. I gave it to my dad for Christmas, and the look on his face was just priceless. He now has a piece of his brother with him always. It was well worth having Kelly take a chance on creating something that she had never tackled before.”
Lund continued, “The second time I had Kelly make bears for us was when my aunt passed away, my mom’s sister. I think we had her make eight bears out of my aunt’s clothing, along with some ornaments.
“When she makes the bears, she looks over all of the material and uses every piece of it including the flaws in the material. When Kelly was making the bears, she noticed there was a hole in one of the shirts. Kelly thought the hole looked like heart, and she placed it on the leg of the bear and sewed around it.
“The ornaments were also made out of pieces of her shirts, and Kelly put a picture of my aunt on each ornament.
Lund ended, “When Kelly makes a bear, she personally tries to get to know each and every person that the clothing belonged to. She puts her heart and soul into each and every bear to make each one special and unique. She also attaches a card to each bear with a picture of the person and a special message.”
To see her bears, go to her Bear Memories Facebook page. Or call her at 1-715-532-7681 or 1-715-415-2369 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.