There's a very special story behind this two-year-old's teddy bears

Malachi with the bears.
Malachi with the bears. 

Malachi Snyder has always carried a stuffed puppy around, but lately has been putting it aside to climb on his mother's bed to play with two teddy bears.

They're very significant, but the two-year-old doesn't know it yet.

They are made from one of the St. Louis County police uniforms his father, Blake Snyder, 33, wore before being shot to death on duty October 6.

Malachi's mother, Elizabeth, believes the bears have a good chance of taking the place of the beloved puppy that she and her husband, Blake Snyder, bought for their son when he was a baby.

"They're very sentimental," she said of the bears.

It was hard parting with the uniform, even though she still has others, she said. Her sister took it to a woman who is the wife of a police officer, who arranged the transformation.

And when it came time to cut up the brown and beige fabric, the bears' creator, Thea Gain, 62, struggled, too.

"You just know that this is probably one of the last things he wore, the last things that the wife has touched of his, and it's important that you treat it with care," she explained.

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Gain estimates that she has made about 500 bears from clothing, quilts and other fabric sent by people from over the country over 20 years.

Each one has a story. Some sad. Some funny.

Snyder's bears were especially touching for Gain.

"I just remember what my boys were like and how they couldn't wait for their daddy to come home, and I know that's not going to happen for him," she said.

Gain has made bears for families of other first responders - typically the children and grandchildren of retirees.

One police uniform arrived from Pennsylvania with a handwritten note: "This uniform was cut off my husband in the emergency room when they tried to save his life," it said.

Gain said she never asks customers for the back story and has no idea how the Pennsylvania officer died. There were grass and dirt stains on the back of his shirt; the widow asked that the stains be on the bear's back, too.

"You feel their emotion and how it must have been hard to send this material to someone sometimes clear across the country and they don't know if I'm reliable or trustworthy," she said. "It takes a little bit of faith on everybody's part."

She puts the phrase, "Bear in mind, you are loved by God" inside lockets on every bear, and calls the business "Thea's Blessing Bears".

Gain said she felt honored and humbled to make the bears for Snyder but wishes she didn't have to.

"I want people to respect and love the policemen who put their lives in jeopardy every single day for us," she said. "I shouldn't have to be making these. This should not be."

She embroidered "Always with you" on the bottom of one foot of Elizabeth Snyder's bear. Malachi's reads, "Love you buddy." His mother said that's what his father always said to him when leaving for work.

Elizabeth Snyder said it had been too hard emotionally for her to return to the home she once shared with her husband, so she bought a new home. There, she said, the bears have a special place.

For now, they're side by side on her bed - except when Malachi puts his puppy down long enough to take hold of them.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch