Richmond Hill resident Matthew Freeman was accepted into the United States Naval Academy, and went on to become a Marine pilot. He was the third generation of Freemans to wear Navy wings.
In 2009, Matthew married his childhood sweetheart. Three weeks later, he volunteered for ground action when he heard the Marines needed more ground forces in Afghanistan.
A week after Matthew arrived, he called his mother to ask her to start a collection of pens and paper for him to give to the Afghanistan children.
Two days later, he was killed in action.
Matthew’s mother, Lisa Freeman, did start a collection for pens and paper. She began the Matthew Freeman Project: Pens and Paper for Peace in May 2010.
“Matthew’s last words with me were about getting pens and paper to children of Afghanistan through hands of the soldiers and Marines,” Lisa explained. “We started the project within months after he was killed and launched in May of 2010. As the war wound down, we were unable to get the supplies directly into the hands of the children.”
Soon the project took on a different form. Lisa wanted to find a way to help other families who had lost someone in the war. Soon she learned siblings of the fallen were often called “the forgotten mourners.”
“Both of my daughters had mentioned before that they couldn’t understand why people would ask, ‘How is your mom doing?’ or ‘How is Matthew’s wife doing?’ but no one ever asked how they were doing,” Lisa said. “I couldn’t think of a better place to put my focus than something I had experienced personally.”
Lisa began a scholarship fund for siblings of fallen military members. Last November, Lisa gave out the first scholarship check. Since then, five more students have been given scholarships.
Lisa said each student that applies and qualifies will be given a scholarship. The students must write an essay about their relationship with their sibling. Lisa said she hopes to compile all the essays into a book someday.
“If you look at our original mission statement we spoke of education, that’s why we have the scholarship for the siblings,” Lisa said. “But as we move forward, we are focusing on the Gold Star family, which many people don’t know what that means. I would love to see that term be something people are aware of.”
A Gold Star family is a family of a fallen military member.
“I had 29 amazing years with my son, and he was doing what he believed was right. I don’t need anything. But there are people like me who couldn’t function after their sons or daughters were killed. Sometimes they are a forgotten group of people. I would like to bring awareness to Gold Star Families and help them with their grief.”
One way Lisa is doing that is by making teddy bears out of the fallen military members’ uniforms. The bears, referred to as Matthew Bears, are given to the Gold Star Families as a keepsake.
It began when she made bears for Matthew’s nephews out of his uniform and later made a bear for someone else she knew who had lost a sibling in combat.
“God kept putting it in my head that this is something I should do for others,” Lisa said. “I kept telling Him I was very busy, but it was like a nagging that I couldn’t get rid of.”
Word began to spread of the Matthew Bears. CNN picked up on the story and ran a presentation about the project on Memorial Day.
“The next week I had 1,000 emails,” Lisa said. “I was overwhelmed. My mother had just passed away, and I was thinking, ‘How can I make all these bears?’”
Now, Lisa has a database of more than 120 seamstresses from all over the world who volunteer their services to make the Matthew Bears. She also has a database for requests for bears.
“The Matthew Freeman Project is a program that I am honored to be part of,” said local seamstress Melissa Bene. “Being gifted with the opportunity to be a volunteer seamstress for Matthew Bears provides a way to personally honor our countries heroes and give back to their families.”
“Receiving my first package was a bittersweet experience,” Bene continued. “I was saddened for the loss of one of our soldiers and mournful for his family, but also thankful that I could give back by making the uniforms into a treasured keepsake that they can hold onto and pass down to generations to come with pride and remembrance. I plan to continue offering my services and heart to this project as long and as often as they are needed.”
Since Memorial Day, 300 Matthew Bears have been given to Gold Star Family members.
“I have some wonderful stories that people have sent me,” Lisa said. “It’s amazing to hear how making the bears has transformed the seamstresses and how receiving the bears has meant so much. Some people are keeping journals of things they do with the bears and others have sent pictures of the bears. It’s a quite a heartwarming venture to get the feedback that I get.”
The funds needed to make the bears (stuffing and shipping) and to use for scholarships is raised during the annual Matthew Freeman Memorial Run on Veterans Day at J.F. Gregory Park. This year, 135 runners came to the event, which began in 2010.
“I feel Matthew all the time,” Lisa said. “It’s easy to see what his purpose in life was when you see the things that are being done — such good and happy things being done for others. He was always looking to find ways to help others, so I know he would be very proud of what I’m doing and using his name with something that helps others.”
“Lisa channeling the love, pride and loss of her son, Capt. Matthew Freeman, into these wonderful programs is an inspiration,” Bene said. “I have personally seen the gratitude of families touched by her work and it is heartwarming. I am thankful for Lisa providing a way to transform my own personal experiences and love of sewing into something that can be beneficial to others. Working with Lisa on this project and seeing her strength, grace and dedication, and knowing she is the mother of our own Richmond Hill Hometown Hero is a picturesque example of the saying ‘Behind every strong man there is a strong woman.’”
For more information about the Matthew Freeman Project, go to www.freemanproject.org.