When children confront harrowing situations — serious health challenges, abuse, neglect, homelessness, a harrowing disability, or missing a military parent — Wadsworth’s Jan Householder and an ever-growing posse of needle-and-thread volunteers provide comfort with a nontraditional ministry called the Giving Doll.
Founded in March 2006, it is a simple concept: a handmade, soft-sculpture doll that’s huggable and kid-friendly (no loose parts that could harm a little one).
To date, the all-volunteer Giving Doll Ministry has given birth to more than 20,000 dolls that have been dispersed to hurting children in every state and 47 foreign countries.
The strong, connecting thread that keeps these volunteers fully invested in this inspirational effort is their desire to comfort children the best way they can. And the unspoken message is just how much can be accomplished when people, each with a little something to contribute, unite for one purpose.
I have had firsthand knowledge of the power of the Giving Dolls through the smiles on the faces of the special passengers — kids with serious illnesses or developmental disabilities, or who have a parent stationed in harm’s way — who receive the dolls on free rides aboard the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad’s Polar Express.
“When we first started making the dolls, individuals basically completed the whole doll,” Householder said. “So, we had tags that said ‘My name is --------- and I was made by --------- to give you faith, love, joy, hope and comfort during this special time.’ … Later when we became a 501(c)3, it became our mission statement … Later when we expanded and individuals have come to enjoy making just a special part of the doll, we eliminated the ‘made by.’ Now we just give each a name. I think it just helps bring the doll to life.”
During the holidays, the Giving Doll Ministry presented the group’s 15,000th doll to 7-year-old Jo Marie Bailey.
Jo Marie, daughter of Stephanie and Chad Bailey of Wooster and the sister of 4-year-old Owen, is a patient at Akron Children’s Hospital. She was diagnosed on Sept. 11 with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
Her doll, named Sandy, was made in April by Householder herself, its accompanying quilt by volunteer Nancy Salsberry of Akron. “She loves the doll,” her mother said. “It’s definitely something she finds very special and has traveled with us to chemo and to grandma’s house … She was also very excited that several other dolls were left with her to pass out to other little girls receiving chemo. So, she’s made some new friends.”
Wide variety of dolls
Each doll is about 14 inches in height, with yarn hair and various complexions (white, African American, Asian and Indian), and comes with an apron and quilt. Boy dolls also are available.
Householder anticipates that the 20,000th doll will be presented next month to another Akron Children’s Hospital cancer patient during WKDD’s annual Radiothon fundraiser.
Doll No. 1 went to Katherine “Princess” McVey, the daughter of Paula and Wayne McVey of Stow, who was treated for a rare brain tumor at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. She died March 18, 2007. She was 12.
“To date we have made 20,175 dolls; 6,065 this past year alone,” Householder said.
The Giving Doll Ministry operates with a dedicated coterie of about 500 seamstress/volunteers, about 100 them local. Some of the volunteers gather in a shop in Wadsworth to work assembly-line fashion, embroidering faces, stuffing bodies and more.
Akron’s Helen Louis, the longest-serving of the volunteers, is a “finisher” in the doll-making process. “I also cut out the kits and supply all of the elastic,” Louis said. “By finishing, I mean I put all the bling on the dolls — the ribbons, stuff in the hair, and help dress them. It’s the last thing done to the dolls.”
Dr. V. Joanne Fleming — who served as director of the School of Family and Consumer Sciences at the University of Akron from 1990 to 2000 — started a Giving Doll group nearly five years ago at the Church in Silver Lake: “The response was immediate with about 10 persons who are still with us. After observing what we were doing, our new minister was so interested that he wanted the whole congregation to be aware. He planned and gave a wonderful sermon on the Giving Dolls this past fall season.”
Fleming’s relationship with Householder and Paula McVey began in the late ’70s when both entered her Home Economics Teacher Education Program at the University of Akron. Fleming said her doll-makers come from Silver Lake, Stow, Cuyahoga Falls, Kent, Tallmadge, Twin Lakes and even a lady from South Carolina (whose daughter is the church’s secretary) “who has been making beautiful quilted blankets and matching bags for the dolls.”
“The Knitting Group at the church has knit blankets for the dolls, and the Stitch and Sew Group has made clothing and bags,” Fleming said, adding that individuals unable to get to the church stuff the dolls at home.
Also among the active local Giving Doll volunteers are Sue Kling, Sandy Sonntag(board president), Kathy Thompson and Marge Brooks, to name a few.
Ronald McDonald Houses
The Giving Doll Ministry — the sermon you see, not hear — recently embarked on a mission to place Giving Dolls in all of the U.S. Ronald McDonald Houses, the homes away from home for families with hospitalized children.
The first dolls were placed in March in the house that serves Akron Children’s Hospital.
“These dolls were especially made with red shoes like Ronald McDonald wears,” Householder noted.
The effort is in memory of the 20 children who were gunned down along with six adults on Dec. 14, 2012, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
“The plan was to send 20 dolls to at least one Ronald McDonald House in every state with Ronald McDonald Houses,” Householder said. “We sent dolls to 62 houses in the U.S. and we were even able to send three dolls to a Ronald McDonald House in Istanbul, Turkey. The last dolls were mailed recently to Hawaii.”
Participating chapters were Wadsworth, Doylestown, Orrville, Barberton, Silver Lake and Lorain, along with Ronkonkoma, N.Y., Beverly, N.J., The Villages in Florida, Albuquerque, N.M., Raymond, Me., Middletown, Del., and Oxford, Conn.
“We sent a total of 1,263 red-shoed dolls to Ronald McDonald Houses in every state except Wyoming and Alaska, which have no Ronald McDonald Houses … I am putting together a notebook containing thank-you letters and photos from the houses to send to the principal at Sandy Hook to let them know how we have honored the children.”
Each of the siblings of the students who died at Sandy Hook also received a Giving Doll.
So, if you thought the Giving Doll Ministry was just a bunch of women getting together to make and play with dolls, you would be so wrong.
For them, it’s about walking the talk. Not just saying they want to make a difference in the life of a crying child, but actually finding hands-on ways to make it happen.
The Giving Dolls are not for sale. They’re free to a child who has already paid the price with a serious diagnosis, an unreachable sadness or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Bless them all — the hands making these special friends and the hands receiving them.
If you’re interested in donating fabric or time to the Giving Doll Ministry, please email Jan Householder at email@example.com.
Jewell Cardwell can be reached at 330-996-3567 or firstname.lastname@example.org.