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There’s no substitute for a parent’s love, but teddy bears come surprisingly close—especially when they carry heartfelt messages from mom or dad.

So discovered Samantha Jonese, who attended a recent event to “build a bear” with her kids and husband, a U.S. Marine who is preparing for his upcoming deployment. 

At the May 9 event in Oceanside, CA, Samantha’s 4-year-old son picked out a free teddy bear while dad recorded a short message on a small recorder, which then was stuffed into the bear. The bear was stitched up and dressed in mini fatigues, with a U.S. flag patch sewn onto its right sleeve.

Samantha’s husband’s deployments are starting to take a toll on her eldest child, Samantha said, and the cuddly bear will certainly help him cope. “He really notices it now, even if he’s only gone for a couple of days in the field,” Samantha said. “So, to be able to have a bear that has his voice in it is going to be really sweet when he’s missing him.”

“Bear-y” Special Memories 

The Joneses were among hundreds of military family members who created furry friends at the Oceanside event, which was sponsored by Navy Federal in partnership with Build-A-Bear Workshop™, the global stuffed animal company. A second event was held May 16 at a Navy Federal branch in Lakewood, Washington. 

In addition to receiving complimentary bears, military kids got their face painted and snapped selfies with Sammie the Sea Otter, Navy Federal’s mascot. Navy Federal team members also handed out free Navy Federal-branded piggy banks, water bottles and tote bags as a DJ spun lively tunes.

Navy Federal’s first-ever “Bear Brigade” initiative took place during Military Appreciation Month to honor the sacrifice of military families and to support military kids, a vital part of our “total military force,” according to Eric Rowe, a former military child who today is Navy Federal's Vice President of Branch Operations. 

Deployment is, of course, nothing new to military families. Roughly four in 10 military families experience six or more months of family separation every year and a half, according to government statistics, and extended parental absences deeply affect military youth. Stuffed animals offer a constant source of comfort and companionship, especially when they carry messages from a deployed mom or dad.

“This is our way of giving back,” said Mariska Kalmeijer Ruble, mother of two military kids and manager of Navy Federal branches in Mira Mesa and Sorrento Valley, CA. “These bears are here to keep a piece of that heart at home while a child’s parent is deployed overseas.”

“Dad’s right here”

In addition to the Bear Brigade events, Navy Federal regularly donates to nonprofit organizations that support military families. The credit union partners with Our Military Kids, which funds after-school activities for youth of deployed National Guard, deployed Reserve and combat-injured Veterans in treatment who are serving or who have served in the military. It also partners with Operation Gratitude, which provides Americans the opportunity to express their appreciation for military members and first responders.

These donations come on top of many others that Navy Federal makes throughout the year to organizations that serve and support the military community, including a recent round of grants to groups supporting the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines, Air and Space Forces and Coast Guard. 

Navy Federal branches also support local servicemembers, Veterans and their families through donation drives in partnership with area nonprofits.

The bears are one small but tangible way to ease the pain of deployment, Samantha said. “They can constantly click on the hand, and, no matter how many times they click on it, they can hear his voice. It reminds them that dad's going to be home soon. Dad's going to be right here.” 

Shaneeke Beal, a sergeant on maternity leave who attended the May 16 event in Lakewood with her young children, echoed the sentiment. “Having a bear like these, even when it comes to storytime or birthdays or whatever, will be really great,” she said. “I wouldn’t think that a credit union would do that. It’s pretty cool.”


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