Custom created bears hold memories for many
By Sonia Duggan
Comforting others at a time of need is something former pediatric nurse Toni Reese knows how to do very well.
So well, in fact, after leaving the nursing profession years ago, today she has clients instead of patients, but she is still caring for people by crafting handmade teddy bears for them.
Her clients are individuals who want a memento of an occasion or a person that is truly unique. Since 2006, the Wylie mother of five has constructed over 300 Legacy Bears out of her sewing room in her home.
“It’s pretty much nonstop. When I’m done, I’ve got more,’ she said.
A Legacy Bear is a custom teddy bear that is built using the client’s fabric of his or her choosing. It may be a baby onesie, a favorite item of clothing, blanket, or any other fabric that has a special memory or a loved one.
Her business, which creates the bears, is called Tea for Two Boutique. Originally, Reece made custom sewing creations such as clothing and accessories. Since then the bear business has taken over. She offers three different bear styles (and a dog). Beloved garments, blankets and mementos are transformed into the bear and the client chooses the details such as eye color, type of nose, smile, additional accessories and custom embroidery.
The process of designing the bears is what hooked Reese on the business years ago. Clients often reminisce in conversation, and she listens as she helps plan their one-of-a-kind bear.
Bridal gowns, military uniforms, police uniforms. There’s not much that the “Bear Lady” can’t handle. Specially designed bears for fallen first responders highlight her many skills. Sadly, she has made 11 bears in memory of fallen officers. The creations are complete with a badge and personal embroidered touches.
Reese said many of her bears are purchased through random acts of kindness. They are a labor of love and they are not free due to the time that goes into each one. Friends, family, and complete strangers, often purchase them for someone who they know needs a Legacy bear. She put many hours in her creations. “I get a lot of people that are interested – but not financially able to do it. I’ve learned to not keep shorting myself because my heart got in the way.”
Reese’s neighbor Gloria purchased a bear for Debbie Dahl, widow of Irving Police Officer Mark Dahl, after he was killed aiding a motorist at an intersection in August 2016.
When Reese met with Debbie her grief was very raw. Together, they designed a bear that will offer comfort as Debbie struggles to get through life without her beloved husband of 28 years.
After Richardson Police Officer David Sherrard, 37, was killed February 7, it was Debbie who called Reese a few days later wanting to purchase bears for his widow and her two children, ages 10 and 12.
“It’s breaking my heart – to see all the police officers killed,” Reese said.
A quad of special police bears complete with their owner’s initials and a Little Elm badge were made for the four children of Little Elm Detective Jerry Walker last year. Walker was killed during a standoff in January 2016.
Despite making so many bears, there are some that were personally tough to make. One in particular involves Olivia St. John, a 5-year-old killed in a car accident at Hwy. 205 and Hwy. 78 last June. The two families were very close and Olivia had spent many nights at their home. Reece was devastated.
“I couldn’t even talk about it for months,” she said. “When Olivia would stay with me, she always wanted to watch me sew. She would say, ‘Miss Toni I want a bear.’”
Sadly, Olivia never got to enjoy her special bear that was made a few months ago. It was crafted out of Principal Jennifer Speicher’s wedding dress and trimmed in gold. “We (Jennifer and Toni) came together and thought it would be perfect for Olivia,” she said.
When Reese is not busy running her own children around, ages 5, 7, and 8, she is a true community champion. She started the first moms group in Wylie when she moved to town in 2006 called Wylie Moms and More. Though she is no longer active in it, she strives to teach her children about community service and giving back. They visited Fire Station No. 3 last year to deliver a special bear to C crew along with coffee and donuts. In addition, she has made six bears for the Wylie Police Department. “They have a Police Club that they run for the kids each years so we made some bears out of their ‘Wylie United’ shirts. Bringing together Wylie East and Wylie High on one bear,” she said.
Reese said she has always loved to sew and started sewing when she was 11 years old. Years later, in 2006, when her daughter was 6 months old, she started Tea for Two Boutique, inspired by her daughter Taylor. Her small, home-based business designed children’s clothes and accessories.
Her talent did not go unnoticed. One day a parent asked Reese if she could make a teddy bear. She responded “no” because she didn’t believe it was in her skill level at the time. Ironically, that same week, two other women in Wylie asked her to make bears out of baby onesies.
After careful consideration of the recent requests, Reese began to hand-sketch a bear design from 12 different patterns to make it her style.
“The first time I sat down to make the bear, I hated it! It turned out awful,” she said. “But, they kept getting better and better.”
After multiple attempts Reese felt confident enough to make one for a friend who confessed that her mother had cancer and she wanted a special sentimental bear to decorate with her daughter and mom on New Year’s Eve because it was a tradition in their family.
“From that point on, when I saw her reaction when she got the bear, I started making teddy bears,” explained Reese.
Today, the number one request for bears are the ones made in memory of a loved one and the second most popular bears are ones made out of baby take home outfits.
In the not so distant future, Reese said she has plans to make bears weighted to a babies’ birth weight, and someday she will add voice and music boxes.
“These are the things that people have requested that I’ve never been able to do,” she said.
Much like her nursing career and being a mom, her efforts do make a difference. She cherishes every note written to her by individuals who received one of her bears and said one day she plans to write a book with photos of the bears and the stories behind them.
“When I’m older, when things calm down with the sewing, I’ll do that,” she said. In the meantime, Reese is happy doing what she loves.
“I didn’t think it was ever going to get where it is right now,” she said. “I talked to my dad recently and asked him if he ever knew his daughter would grow up to be a teddy bear maker.”