Sixteen-year-old Cibolo resident Aaliyah Steffen donated more than 200 stuffed animals to children in Uvalde following the May 24 school shooting at Robb Elementary School.

Aaliyah is the founder of Bears for Broken Hearts, which is an initiative to collect new or lightly used stuffed animals that she donates to local law enforcement, crisis centers and anywhere that could benefit from having them available for children in need.

According to Aaliyah, the idea came from childhood experiences and the comfort of a stuffed bear that helped her get through difficult times with an abusive father.

“My mom and I got out of an abusive relationship with my biological father after they divorced,” she said. “At my first court-ordered visitation with him, I brought a teddy bear given to me by my uncle, who's a police officer. This teddy bear, 'Maddie,' made me feel safe and listened to all my fears, especially when my bio father wouldn't let me talk to or see my mom.”

Aaliyah said she wanted other children to have the same feeling of safety from a stuffed animal, which led to the creation of Bears for Broken Hearts.

“Maddie was my safe place,” she said. “When I came back home, I told my mom since Maddie made me feel safe and happy when I left for visitation, why couldn't other kids have the same thing as me. That's where Bears for Broken Hearts was born.”

After hearing news of the school shooting at Robb Elementary, Aaliyah asked the community to help with stuffed animal donations and was able to collect enough stuffed animals in three days.

“I come from a family of law enforcement officers, so immediately after seeing the shooting in Uvalde, I thought about the children affected and how their mental health was going to be impacted,” she said. “Having these bears there to help them deal with the wave of emotions and fears that they were now facing was going to be a huge help to them. It was very important for me to get those bears to those children who needed it.”

Since the founding of Bears for Broken Hearts, Aaliyah has donated over 5,000 stuffed animals.

Aaliyah has also spent five years pursuing her dream to become Role Model Junior Teen through the Royal International Miss Scholarship Pageant, which she achieved in July.

Through her role, Aaliyah was able to present Bears for Broken Hearts at the competition, and she aims to use her platform to expand the initiative and help children in need.

“Being able to share my story and being able to get these bears into the hands of children who need it the most, is part of my own personal healing,” she said. “I was able to present Bears for Broken Hearts at the Royal International Miss Scholarship Pageant this summer, and I won the title of international Role Model Junior Teen. Together with my other role model sister queens, we will be working on this platform to get as many bears into the hands of as many children as possible.”

Aaliyah attends local events, such as Garden Ridge Market Days, to accept donations and tell more people about Bears for Broken Hearts. She will have a booth at Cibolofest, which will be held on Oct. 1.

For more information on Bears for Broken Hearts and how to contribute, visit the Facebook page or Instagram.