BENNINGTON — Since last fall, 13-year-old Gabriella Rivera and two other students from the Vermont School for Girls have been spending a few hours a week sewing for a purpose.
Last week, the girls presented some of their handiwork at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center: fabric dolls that would be given to emergency room patients.
“This actually would be perfect for some of our elderly population as well, not just for kids,” Laurie Pudvar, assistant director of nursing at the hospital’s emergency room, said. “It would be awesome for comfort and give them a friend and someone to snuggle.”
Such dolls reduce the anxiety of a hospital visit, she said, and patients’ family members appreciate the gesture.
Of the eight dolls donated to the hospital, one was an owl with a head made of denim and polka-dot cotton for wings. Another was a gentle monster, which had a bright green felt head and a toothy expression. A female figure with a crown and lace gown was called “the goddess.”
Each doll carried a card with a printed message. There were four message variations, and the one tucked in a heart-shaped pink pocket on the owl’s belly read: “Dear Friend, I am here for you to snuggle and hug, when you are falling down and need some love.”
The back of the card identified the doll as a project of Vermont Arts Exchange, a North Bennington nonprofit group that promotes art education, exhibitions and performance opportunities.
The group has been making the dolls since 2013 with the help of VSG students and other volunteers. Called TLC Dolls, about 140 of them have since been given to Project Against Violent Encounters, a organization that helps victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Tuesday was the first time the dolls were given to another institution.
Vermont Arts Exchange Executive Director Matthew Perry wants to add new recipients, such as law enforcement agencies, drug treatment clinics and more nonprofits.
“It is unfortunate there is such demand for what VAE has been creating,” he said. “Our community has more than its share of families and children in crisis.”
Perry is hoping his group can make up to a thousand new dolls in the coming year.
Businesses and local residents have donated doll-making materials such as fabric and body filling. Last year, VAE received a $6,000 grant from the Vermont Arts Council.
It apparently takes sewers about an hour and a half to make one doll using an existing pattern. But volunteers can also come up with their own designs, which have resulted in dolls such as unicorns, rabbits and horses.
The project is about “learning to be creative but making a difference in the community,” said Kristen Blaker, VAE community arts leader, who has been teaching volunteers to make the dolls since since 2013.
The project now has 15 to 20 volunteers, including Bennington College students and members of the NorShaft Lions Club.
Participants from the Vermont School for Girls, a facility for girls with developmental and emotional trauma, learn a skill set they can apply to a job, Blaker said. On top of that, the work builds self-esteem and gives them an opportunity to look past their problems, she said.
Rivera learned to make dolls through VAE, and the teen wants to continue being involved in the project.
“It makes me feel good that people have something to cuddle with,” she said, remembering she once had a blanket that gave her comfort during hard times.
People who want to become a volunteer sewer can contact the Vermont Arts Exchange by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 802-442-5549.
Tiffany Tan can be reached at email@example.com, @tiffgtan at Twitter and 802-447-7567 ext. 122.