Stuffed with love

Who knew stuffed animals could be so important? For two area women bonded by tragedy, the stuffies are a way to honor their children’s memories and also give back to others.

Photo by Jenny Kirk Volunteering at the NTSO Stuff-a-Stanger tent recently were (from left): Alaina Bleick, Laurie Ourada, Kandy Noles Stevens, Rick Herder and Carter Barker.

MARSHALL

While they might not have known the full story behind the plush animal stuffing opportunity, everyone who took part in the Stuff-a-Stanger event during Gold Rush Days orientation recently at Southwest Minnesota State University helped contribute to meaningful causes.

It was the first time that Squeeze the Stuffins partnered with SMSU’s Non-Traditional Student Organization (NTSO), and it was led by two amazingly-strong women who both suffered the loss of a child — 21-year-old Daniel Ourada died as the result of an automobile accident in December 2001, and 12-year-old Reed Stevens was one of four children to die in the Lakeview bus crash in February 2008.

“Kandy (Noles Stevens) and I met through our experience of me reaching out to her family after the loss of her son in the Cottonwood bus accident,” NTSO President Laurie Ourada said. “I called to invite her to come to our annual Captain Dan Fun Days at Lucan city park to release a balloon in memory of her son along with other families who were remembering a loved one. We hosted the two-day event for 10 years and on Sunday each year, we would release 500-plus colorful balloons to heaven in memory of our loved ones who are lost too soon.”

Noles Stevens said she and her family were also looking to honor her son after his untimely death. While grateful that friends started a Lakeview School scholarship in Reed’s name, the family felt compelled to give back in even more ways.

“We wanted to do something at Avera McKennan because Reed was still alive (after the bus crash) and they took him to the hospital in Sioux Falls (South Dakota),” Noles Stevens said. “(Reed died later that day) and our son Sawyer was in intensive care for nine days.”

The Stevens family also have two daughters, Erin and Cloie Stevens. While young Cloie wasn’t on the school bus, older sister Erin was. Fortunately, Erin was treated and released from McKennan.

“As a family, we wanted to do something to honor Reed’s life, but to also support kids like Sawyer, Erin and (our daughter) Cloie, who like them, walked out of that hospital without a sibling,” Kandy Noles Stevens said. “We came up with this idea of doing stuffed cheetahs because the cheetah was Reed’s favorite animal.”

At the time, Kandy said she, her husband Dan and their children couldn’t figure out how to proceed, so the project stalled.

REED-A-CHEETAH COMES TO FRUITION

Noles Stevens said she had approached former Marshall Bowl owners Bruce and Kris Shover about their Bear Factory operation, but learned that cheetahs weren’t one of the critters available through wholesale companies. The Shovers said they would keep their eyes open as catalogs were updated.

“About a year and a half later, I got a call from Bruce,” Noles Stevens said. “He said he was looking through their catalog and that we weren’t going to believe it, but there are cheetahs now.”

And the surprises didn’t stop there. As the family was establishing the Reed Stevens Legacy Program at Avera McKennan Hospital, the Shovers invited them over to tell them the longtime bowling alley would be closing.

“We were so saddened by that because we’d become good friends by then,” Noles Stevens said. “The loss of that business to our community was huge. Bruce has such a heart for kids. He’s the real hero in all of this.”

Noles Stevens said the Shovers asked them to sit down because they had more news to tell them.

“They told us that they took a vote as a family and decided that they were going to give us their entire Bear Factory business — the material goods, the machines, everything,” she said. “Their only condition was that they wanted us to continue what they were doing for the Ronald McDonald House. It was an amazing gift, so we decided we’d turn it into a not-for-profit business.”

Reed-A-Cheetah was the name given to the stuffed animal, which is referred to as a stuffie. But it took awhile to come up with the perfect name for the business.

“The Bear Factory name didn’t really fit because that was more of a business model and not a give back to your community model,” Noles Stevens said. “Then one day, it just sort of came to me like a whisper in my ear. Reed was really famous for sneaking up behind you and giving you a giant bear hug. He’d say, ‘I’m going to squeeze the stuffins out of you.’ So we knew immediately that Squeeze the Stuffins was the name.”

Between the donations from the Stevens and Shover families, approximately 400 stuffed animals have been gifted to young Ronald McDonald House patients over the past 10 years.

“There are two Ronald McDonald Houses that we support in Sioux Falls,” Noles Stevens said. “One is associated with Sanford and the other is with Avera McKennan. The patients at the hospital get different kinds of stuffies.”

About 500 Reed-A-Cheetahs have also been given to Avera McKennan.

“Those are given to any surviving siblings of any child who dies at the Avera McKennan Hospital,” Noles Stevens said. “That’s a lot of grieving children. But like Reed, he had three siblings.”

While they never had intentions of meeting any of the recipients of the cheetahs, members of the Stevens family have been approached by people from around the area who thanked them for the stuffed animal gift for their children.

“They told us it meant so much to them,” Noles Stevens said. “And every once in awhile, I’ll get someone who stopped to say their child still sleeps with their cheetah. It’s heartbreaking. But it’s also amazing to know that even in their darkest moment, Reed’s light was able to shine.”

Noles Stevens said it was really important that the business reflected how Reed lived his life and not how he died.

“Reed loved kids and he loved laughing,” she said. “So this is perfect. And we plan to continue this until all of us are gone. We’ll never stop. We believe the world is not as bright without him, but if we can share all of his goodness, amazingness and how loving he was, then we did his legacy proud.”

PARTNERING WITH FUNDRAISERS

When Squeeze the Stuffins partners with fundraisers, Noles Stevens said the organization recoups their expenses and the cost of paying for at least one cheetah or other stuffie.

“The fundraiser typically gets everything above and beyond that,” she said. “We try to partner with really good causes for children.”

Whether or not the stuffing machine is available depends on the event. For birthday parties, the fluff gets put in a basket.

“It comes with pre-measured bags of stuffing so the kids can stuff the animals,” Noles Stevens said. “They also get a T-shirt they can decorate.”

Squeeze the Stuffins also partnered with Relay for Life and with some seventh-grade boys from Russell-Tyler-Ruthton who were raising funds to buy food for their school’s Backpack Program as part of their Family, Career and Community Leaders of America project.

Reed Stevens loved the SMSU Mustangs, so it was only a matter of time that a fundraiser on campus would take place. Working with the NTSO ended up being a great fit.

“NTSO currently has 30 members on its roster,” Laurie Ourada said. “The purpose of our fundraiser — Stuff-a-Stanger — is to raise awareness of our group’s presence at SMSU and also to raise funds to send several members to the Leadership Training Convention next spring.”

Ourada was pleased with the turnout on Move-In Day.

“It was a great day filled with lots of visitors to our tent to see what was happening and what exactly Stuff-a-Stanger was,” she said. “It was especially fun to see the students and staff stuff their own mustang. I was able to reconnect with several professors and students, sharing laughter and catching up on what is going on in each others’ lives.”

Ourada returned to college at the age of 57. The mother of five children and eight grandchildren plans to graduate in May.

“My dream to attain a college degree is coming true,” she said. “It’s a lot of hard work, but I am dedicated and determined to finish strong. NTSO gives me a solid base to connect with others like me, and my goal is to help rebuild our club into a group that is strong and connected to staff, students and peers. We all experience college differently. We all have different backgrounds, such as age, religion, culture and gender, but NTSO is a place you can call home.”

Many of the incoming students who had just recently left their homes to attend classes at SMSU were thrilled to get a stuffed mustang of their own.

“It was super fun to make,” sophomore Taylor Haase said. “He’s so cute and super cuddly. I was scared I was going to blow him up, though.”

Zoe Martinson had used the stuffing machine before, but said she enjoyed the opportunity again.

“It’s fun,” she said.

Alaina Bleick shared that the $20 cost also included a birth certificate for a person’s mustang. NTSO adviser Rick Herder explained that an angel or wishing star could also be placed inside the stuffed animal.

“It’s a good fundraiser,” Herder said. “It allows us to make some money — the proceeds go to the club — but it also helps children. They’ve donated close to 900 of these stuffed animals to hospitals already.”

Overall, the fundraiser seemed to go over well.

“It was fun to see different students walking around on campus,” Noles Stevens said. “A lot of them had books in one arm and a Stanger in the other.”

CONTINUING THE EFFORT

Like many who put off getting a college education in order to work, travel or raise a family, Ourada is pursuing a higher education degree later in life. The transition back into the academic setting hasn’t been easy — it’s often a juggling act between family life, jobs, community responsibilities, homework and study time — but Ourada said she believes it will have all been worth it when she graduates in May.

Ourada’s son Daniel never had the opportunity to finish his post-secondary education, so it will be a bittersweet moment for her, as well as for her husband Terry. Their son, a Wabasso graduate, had been an exercise science major seeking a minor in coaching at SMSU at the time of his death. He was also a captain of the Mustang wrestling team.

Like the Stevens family, the Ouradas wanted to give back to others because of the overwhelming support they received after the tragedy.

“We established an endowment fund in his name at SMSU in 2002,” Laurie Ourada said. “An award of $15,000 is gifted to a wrestling student each year.”

While it isn’t easy, the families take comfort in knowing that they’re helping pay it forward — in this case, one stuffed animal at a time.

“Kandy and Dan’s family has become a part of our family and our sons’ memories live on through us in love,” Ourada said. “And now through this recent Stuff-a-Stanger project, we are again able to touch lives and make a difference.”

The NTSO is planning a second Stuff-a-Stanger fundraiser on Oct. 6 during SMSU Homecoming.

“Look for our tent and take home a memory,” Ourada said.

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