David and Jessica Burnett were in the Milwaukee airport about to board a flight with their two small children when they saw their son, Ezekiel, 5, toss his beloved stuffed bear high above his head. David Burnett warned his son not to throw his favorite buddy, named Teddy, too high.
“We figured we’d never see Teddy again,” said David Burnett, 37, noting that Teddy got caught in the rafters on Thanksgiving weekend last year, and the airports were packed with travelers.
The couple did their best to console Ezekiel and his concerned sister, Zaria, 3, on the flight home and were relieved when Ezekiel seemed content to sleep with a favorite stuffed dog that night, David Burnett said.
“We didn’t call the airport because Ezekiel has lost a lot of toys over the years,” said Jessica Burnett, 39. “I did feel some mom guilt, so I bought him a bear online that looked similar to Teddy,” she said. “Ezekiel asked me one night if Teddy was in heaven.”
Ezekiel and his sister fell back into their usual bedtime routine of gathering their favorite stuffed animals around. Then on the evening of Feb. 8, Jessica said she spotted a familiar face while scrolling through Facebook.
“It was Teddy!” she said. “Somebody at the airport was looking after him.”
Her son’s tattered sandy brown bear had probably spent weeks in the rafters, but once it fell, a kind person turned Teddy into the airport’s lost-and-found on Jan. 4, Jessica Burnett said.
In February, somebody at the airport noticed Teddy in the lost lockup area and posted about him a couple of times on Facebook. Some of the amusing photos showed him hanging out with a purple monkey named Violet, the airport’s longest lost stuffed animal. Airport workers regularly post about missing toys and stuffed animals, and they had tried unsuccessfully to find Violet’s owner for two years.
They hoped to have better luck with Teddy. “Anyone fly in or out of Milwaukee on January 4 and leave this little guy behind?” read one post. “We’ve had him for a month now and he appears to be pretty well loved, so we’re hoping this family is out there somewhere!”
“I was speechless to see Teddy come through my news feed,” said Jessica, noting that a friend had shared one of the airport’s posts on Facebook.
“Somebody saw the little heart on Teddy’s chest and commented that it was a bear often given to children who suffer from congenital heart disease,” said Jessica Burnett, adding that she wanted to make it clear to the many concerned people who had posted that her son does not have a heart problem and is healthy.
The bear was a gift from a friend after he was born, she noted. But because of the comment and subsequent concern about his health, tens of thousands of people on social media had shared the airport’s posts in the hope of reuniting Teddy with his best friend.
Teddy’s case got extra attention since people were wondering if the child who lost him might have a heart defect, said Christie Green, marketing coordinator for the Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport. “Even though it turned out not to be true, when people read that, it just took off,” she said. “Everyone wanted to reunite that teddy bear with his family.”
The morning after Jessica Burnett saw the post, she showed an elated Ezekiel the photos of Teddy, then called the airport to let them know that the bear belonged to her son, she said.
“When they asked for official confirmation, I remembered we’d taken a photo at Thanksgiving that showed Teddy sitting on the couch in the background,” she said. “Once I sent them that, they came up with a plan to get Ezekiel his bear.”
Hotels and airports sometimes make a big show of returning lost stuffed toys to children, and the Milwaukee airport decided to do the same. It’s a way to celebrate and promote a travel story with a happy ending, as many stories on social media often deal with aggrieved travelers.
Southwest Airlines offered to fly Ezekiel to Milwaukee to pick up Teddy, so on Valentine’s Day, he made the trip with his dad.
“Airline workers had a huge sign with his name on it on the tarmac, and when Ezekiel walked off the plane there were streamers and balloons set up like an archway,” David Burnett said.
But Ezekiel would have to wait one more day for a reunion with Teddy. “They were having a press conference the next morning to present him with his bear, so I took him to a Milwaukee Bucks game,” David said. “He asked me probably 10 times at the game and the hotel that night, when are we going to see Teddy?”
The big moment finally happened shortly before they caught a plane back to Dallas. When Ezekiel was reunited with his lost pal, he hugged Teddy and told airport workers and camera crews that he was happy to see him again.
“I think they took good care of him,” he later told The Washington Post. “He went to a lot of places in the airport and had a lot of fun. But I’m glad he’s home.”
He won’t be tossing his favorite bear into the air again anytime soon, he said. “He’s happy on the bed with the other bears,” Ezekiel said.
David Burnett said he was touched by the concern that strangers showed for his son.
“The fact that people had such a heart for reuniting a kid with his teddy bear says a lot,” he said. “People all over the world were sharing Teddy’s picture, wanting a happy ending. We’re thrilled that we finally have one.”