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Stuffed animal donation promotes seat belt use, comforts children

Published: Thursday, April 4 2013 3:55 p.m. MDT

Roughly 2,000 stuffed animals were donated in memory of fatal crash victim Stacie Mae Gray, pictured here, at Utah Highway Patrol Headquarters in Salt Lake City on Thursday, April 4, 2013. The stuffed animals are used to comfort children involved in car crashes and also distributed at car seat checkpoints to reward children for buckling up.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

WEST VALLEY CITY — Utah Highway Patrol troopers can keep giving stuffed animals to victims of traumatic car accidents, thanks to a donation from a Utah family. 

Sisters Kaye Nelson and Jan Gray presented almost 2,000 stuffed animals to the Utah Highway Patrol in memory of Gray's daughter, Stacie, who died in a car accident 10 years ago. Stacie Gray, described by her mother as a seat belt advocate, did not buckle up the day of the accident that ended her life at age 24.

"This event came about because someone was killed in a car crash, and that outcome in the car crash could have been different had Stacie Gray been wearing her seat belt," UHP Sgt. Ted Tingey said. 

In Utah, 67 of the 215 traffic fatalities in 2012 were a result of improper restraint, or failure to properly wear a seat belt, according to reports by Utah Zero Fatalities, a group of state and local organizations working to identify and prevent the causes of roadway fatalities.  

Seat belt use reduces injuries and deaths from car accidents by 50 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Though wearing a seat belt is the most effective way to cut down on adult deaths and injuries from car crashes, millions of Americans do not consistently wear them, according to the CDC. 

The Gray family got the idea to donate the plush toys from daughter Stephnie Mead, whose children received stuffed animals after a car crash a few years after Stacie Gray's death.

"That instantly calmed them down," Mead said. 

Plush animals of assorted sizes were bagged and piled waist-deep in a small room in Kaye Nelson's home as donations poured in from all over Utah, several states and Canada.

One homebound man in Springville found out about the effort over Facebook and purchased Ty Beanie Babies to add to the collection. Another young girl collected stuffed animals for another service project, which fell through. Her father contacted Nelson and donated the toys.

What started as a two-week donation effort and anticipated 200-500 stuffed animals turned into five weeks and more than 2,000 stuffed animals as people found out about the project through social media and local news outlets. 

About 1,800 of the plush toys went to the Utah Highway Patrol, and a little more than 400 of the new toys were donated to Utah Valley Regional Medical Center. 

"We'll make good use of them," UHP Maj. Mike Rapich told Nelson.

Before Thursday's donation, the highway patrol had about 300 animals on hand, Tingey said. Between hospital visits, car crashes, car seat checkpoints and other events, UHP goes through between 600 and 800 stuffed animals per year.

Officers will give the stuffed animals to children after car accidents and as rewards to children who are wearing their seat belts.

Jan Gray said she hopes the effort will inspire others to wear seat belts and that those who receive a bear will find some way to pay the service forward.

Stacie Gray loved children, her mother said, and would have been pleased with the donation. 

"I think she is up there in heaven just laughing and clapping and jumping up and down," she said.

E-mail: wevans@deseretnews.com

Twitter: whitevs7

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