Credit: Courtesy Lisa Freeman

It was Aug. 7, 2009, the first day of school. Math and science teacher Lisa Freeman was assembling packets of pens and paper in her classroom at Richmond Hill Middle School in Georgia when she saw two Marines somberly walking down the hall.

Her only son, Matthew, 29, a pilot in the Marines who had volunteered to serve on more dangerous ground duty, had arrived in Afghanistan only nine days earlier – and already had started a project to help Afghan children. He had asked his mom to help help round up school supplies.

He would never finish that project, and Lisa Freeman, as she learned that day, would never see her son again.

“It was always Matthew’s dream to be a pilot in the military, just like his dad and grandfather,” says Lisa, 62, now retired, of Richmond Hill. “It was so difficult to lose him. But I soon realized that I wasn’t alone.”

While condolences poured in to Lisa, her husband, Gary, and Matthew’s wife, Teresa, Freeman noticed that well-wishers often overlooked Matthew’s two sisters, Marybeth Macias, 28, and Virginia Wiedower, 26.

“Their big brother meant the world to them,” she says. “Their lives changed when he died, too, not just mine.”

Wanting to help grieving siblings, Freeman founded the Matthew Freeman Project, a nonprofit that creates teddy bears sewn from the uniforms of soldiers killed in action. To date, Freeman and her volunteer seamstresses have given away more than 100 stuffed bears.

But Freeman wanted to do more than provide comfort. So she started a college scholarship fund that so far has given away seven $1,000 scholarships to siblings of fallen service people and five $1,500 scholarships to seniors at Matthew’s former high school.

“Though we can’t run up to my brother and give him a hug, we can now hold on tight to a bear and remember him,” says Jessica Frausto, 28, of San Antonio, who requested three bears so that her sons, Bruce, 7, Colton, 4, and Levi, 1, could remember their uncle, Army Spc. Shannon Chihuahua, killed in Afghanistan in 2010.

“The bears help remind me of the warmth, joy and light that my brother brought to our family,” she says.

Freeman has now expanded her project to include families whose soldiers have died from combat-related related suicide.

“A bear is such a small thing, but it provides a lot of comfort,” she says.

“It’s a tremendous honor to be able to give somebody something they can treasure in their loved one’s memory. Nobody who loses a sibling or a nephew or an uncle in uniform should be forgotten.”

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