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Dolls handmade for hugs

New York Giving Doll volunteers, from left, Doris

New York Giving Doll volunteers, from left, Doris Benson of Lake Ronkonkoma, Davee Lifrier of Ronkonkoma, Maureen Ennis of Ronkonkoma, her daughter Colleen Ennis, Theresa Robinson of Farmingville, Debra Marino of Sayville and Jane Ennis, mother-in-law of Maureen Ennis. (Sept. 12, 2012) Credit: Heather Walsh

The story behind huggable cloth dolls with perky smiles and big eyes — modern-day cousins of Raggedy Ann and Andy — captured the heart of Maureen Ennis. The handmade dolls are given to children who are hospitalized, ill or face a life trauma such as a parent being deployed in the military, an ill sibling or a fire in their home.

Volunteers, like Ennis, who make the dolls hope they provide solace to youngsters in a time of turmoil. "I loved the idea of the doll" and the purpose behind it, said Ennis, 50, of Lake Ronkonkoma.

After learning about The Giving Doll program from a Florida friend, Ennis contacted founder Jan Householder of Ohio for permission to start a chapter on Long Island, the first in New York. "We held our first meeting in November 2011," Ennis recalled.

It wasn't long before she recruited volunteers, set up a workshop in her kitchen and quickly developed a need for more space. Now, up to 30 helpers make and assemble the dolls, and even more volunteers pitch in to make the blankets. The dolls have proved so popular that to meet the demand, the volunteers recently began gathering weekly at the St. Regis Knights of Columbus in Lake Ronkonkoma. Requests for the dolls come in from hospitals or individuals who hear about the dolls and know of a child who could use one to cuddle.


A program is born

So far, the chapter has made 80 dolls. Most have found homes with children on Long Island, Ennis said, but some have traveled to Ireland, Germany, Australia and across the country. The dolls often resemble their new owners in skin, hair and eye color. Each doll comes with an outfit, a blanket and a carrying bag, as well as a tag with the doll's name.

The idea for the program started when Householder made a doll to comfort a friend's daughter who was being treated at St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital in Memphis. Additional dolls were requested for other ill children, and in 2006, the program was born. The idea has spread through networking and word-of-mouth.

Since the program's start, more than 13,000 dolls have been distributed nationally by the nonprofit, Householder said. Chapters use a copyrighted pattern for making the doll bodies and clothes. She stressed that the dolls are always donated to the children, never sold.

The Long Island chapter found a home for its first doll in January this year and is now working to fill a hospital's request for 100 dolls, Ennis said.

Six-year-old Tianna Balkam of Lake Grove received a doll in July after surgery to add artificial bone to her gum — part of a cleft palate repair. Tianna's parents, Matthew and Laura Balkam, asked for the doll after hearing about the program from Tianna's grandmother Rosemary Balkam. Balkam, 76, of Ronkonkoma, volunteers with Ennis, making yarn hair and stuffing the dolls.

Tianna loves the color pink, so her doll has pink and orange hair and a pink outfit. Tianna, who was adopted from China when she was 4, was excited to get the doll after her surgery. "I love it," said Tianna, a first-grader at Wenonah Elementary School in the Sachem Central School District. "I love her eyes, her hair and her mouth." Like the other dolls, Tianna's came already named. She was called Rose, which is Tianna's middle name.

At a recent evening in Ennis' home, volunteers gathered in the kitchen for the assembly work. Checking the firmness of one doll's arm being filled with polyester fluff, Ennis decreed it needed more fiberfill and reached for one of the long-

handled wooden spoons the doll makers use to compress and distribute the stuffing inside the doll's body.

"Stuff them really full," she said, "use the spoon to get the stuffing all the way inside and pack it firm."


Army of volunteers grows

The dolls are made to stand up to lots of loving (like strong hugs) and repeat washings. "These will be going in the washer, so they have to be sturdy," Ennis explained. The clothes are cotton, and the yarn hair is either acrylic or cotton. No wool is used in the hair because children may be allergic to it. Ennis recently received a donation of a specialized embroidery sewing machine that will be used to make the doll's faces. For now, the faces are created with fabric paint.

Ennis says there's a growing army of volunteers who help make the dolls and accessories. Some live in Leisure Village in Ridge; others include members of Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Lake Ronkonkoma, who crochet 24-by-24-inch blankets that go home with the dolls. Still more volunteers make knotted-edge fleece blankets that require no sewing. The weekly group that meets at the St. Regis Knights of Columbus in Lake Ronkonkoma make yarn hair, and stuff, sew and dress the dolls.

The Knights of Columbus, where Ennis and her husband, Sean, 54, have been members for 16 years, donates work and storage space. Jimmy Tallman, 46, president of the board, said the fraternal organization agreed to provide space when the program got too big for Ennis' house. "We said, 'It's for kids, so let's do it.' "

Despite the expanding crew of volunteers, Ennis still needs helpers who can use a sewing machine to make the doll bodies and the outfits. "Sewing is becoming a lost art," she said. Ennis makes the pantaloon the girl dolls wear under dresses.


A chorus of compliments

Doris Benson, 81, of Ronkonkoma has been helping since the spring to make outfits for the dolls. She first irons the fabric, then cuts a top and pants for the boy dolls or a dress and apron for the girl dolls, and stitches up the outfits. Benson makes about six outfits every two weeks, plus the carrying bags. "I have a busy life, but I find a little time for this," she said. There's a chorus of compliments for her meticulous sewing from the other volunteers on hand.

The demand for dolls made by local volunteers began when Ennis and her Farmingville friend, Terry Robinson, 52, took five of them to Stony Brook Long Island Children's Hospital pediatric cancer unit.

"The dolls are adorable, and it's always nice to have something handmade to give out to the kids," wrote child life specialist Lauren Sharaby in an email. Sharaby, who coordinates handing out the dolls to ill children, said the dolls' short hair is like the children's hair when it grows back after chemotherapy. "It gives them hope that their hair will grow back someday," she said. And the varying skin tones of the dolls make them suitable for children of different ethnicities. She also uses the dolls for medical play to help explain how a port will be accessed after a procedure.

"When we brought five dolls to the hospital for the first time, it was very, very emotional for me," Ennis said. "There were so many sick kids, and to see all of them .?.?." That visit cemented her desire to continue the project.

Robinson, Ennis' friend, agrees. "We're doing it for a great cause."


Lend a hand

Interested in helping? Volunteers meet Thursdays at the St. Regis Knights of Columbus in Lake Ronkonkoma, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Donations are also accepted then. For details, call Maureen Ennis at 631-278-4699 or send an email with contact information to

Donations most useful for making the dolls:

—Polyester filling for the bodies

—Cotton or acrylic yarns that reflect real hair colors

—Woven cotton and cotton-blend fabric for the doll bodies

—Colorful cotton prints and solids for the outfits

—Thread, trimmings, lace, 3/8- and 1/4-inch elastic

—Gift cards from stores such as Jo-Ann Fabrics & Crafts, Michaels and Walmart

—Craft store coupons

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