Lauren Swank says a stuffed teddy bear given to her nearly five years ago by a Columbia County deputy gave her the hope she needed to get through a difficult situation.
On Friday, it was a gesture the 13-year-old returned in kind, riding from Florida to donate 180 stuffed bears to the Columbia County Sheriff's Office.
"You brought me luck, so I am bringing you some luck," Lauren told sheriff's Deputy Joe Anderson as she gave him a teddy bear decorated with four-leaf clovers.
It was nearly five years ago that Lauren, 8, was removed from a troubled Grovetown home by the Division of Family and Children Services, and it was Anderson who gave Lauren a teddy bear to help lessen the stress of the situation.
"It meant someone actually cared about me and wanted to help," Lauren said of the bear that she kept for years.
Lauren was reunited with Anderson on Friday when she brought gifts to help other children in distress. The girl and man, who met at the sheriff's office in Appling, shared hugs and conversation about how she had changed since they last met, including her involvement in school, karate and her newest endeavor - the teddy bear drive.
About four months ago, Lauren started Bears Because We Care, a club that she used to collected stuffed animals from around the country. Her intention was to donate the toys to fire departments, the sheriff's office and Florida Highway Patrol in Jacksonville, where she lives with her second cousin Vivian Alcott and Vivian's husband, Jeff.
"She got bears from Hawaii, just about every state in the U.S.," Alcott said. She said her family made the trip so Lauren could donate the bears in person. "She actually collected almost 800 bears. We only brought 180 here (to Columbia County) because that's all we could fit in the car."
Deputy Kara McGahee, of the sheriff's office Community Services Unit, said deputies keep stuffed animals in their patrol cars to comfort children in car accidents or in situations such as Lauren's.
McGahee said the stuffed animals are a big help to children in stressful times.
"(They do it because) it gives them that sense of comfort," she said.
Alcott said she met Lauren at a family funeral and shortly afterward discovered Lauren had been put into foster care. After several court dates and nearly a year of foster care, the Alcotts took custody of Lauren and are legally adopting her.
Lauren said the bear she received years ago got her through a difficult time while she was in foster care. She said she hopes her actions help other children who might have experienced a similar pain.
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