Every week, the Doll Dressers wash ink off little cheeks, crochet booties for bare plastic feet and quilt blankets for babies they will never warm. For more than 30 years, this...
Every week, the Doll Dressers wash ink off little cheeks, crochet booties for bare plastic feet and quilt blankets for babies they will never warm. For more than 30 years, this group of elderly women has rescued castaway dolls and restored them to their former beauty for children who otherwise would have no gifts at Christmas.
Yesterday, the congregation at Tukwila’s Riverton Park United Methodist Church blessed 250 dolls and prayed that they would find their way into the arms of underprivileged, homeless or abused children. They prayed that the dolls would be loved.
Betty Lou Stout, 84, has been rescuing dolls since 1970. That year, a friend came into church and asked whether anyone had anything to put under the tree for children at the food bank where she worked. Stout dressed 16 dolls that year by herself.
One member can’t attend meetings because she lives in a nursing home, so she stitches the quilt blocks for blankets by hand and has a church pastor deliver them to the Dressers.
The women get most of the dolls through donations, but they also scour garage sales and thrift stores, especially for hard-to-find African-American dolls.
Yesterday, a gathering of snappily dressed dolls, all clean and tidy, crowded a shelf inside the church. There were Cabbage Patch Kids, Barbies, even an Ideal doll that Stout believed was at least 20 years old.
Stout was particularly proud of a lace-trimmed, black polka-dot dress she sewed from Simplicity Pattern No. 3. She made it after someone told her she couldn’t dress a doll in black. She used the same pattern on dresses for her daughter, now 61, when she was a child.
Stout winces if someone shakes her hand too hard. She has rheumatoid arthritis and osteoporosis “My doctor says it’s like honeycombs inside,” she says.
But every week she’s back at her sewing machine stitching miniature dresses. Each member has developed a specialty undies, booties, hair, blankets.
When a torn-up naked doll arrives, the first thing the Dressers do is wash the doll. Often, previous owners have scribbled ink on the dolls’ faces; the group discovered that coating them with Vaseline and leaving them in the sun for months can help leech it out.
They find underwear for the dolls or sew a new pair if they can’t find the right size. They do the same for dresses. In a bumper year, when the group swelled to 12 members, they gave away 500 dolls.
“We get to the point that we love the dolls,” Stout says. They draw the line at naming them, though. “We don’t dare get that attached.”
They’re so sensitive to the children’s economic plight that if the dolls have had batteries in them, Stout’s husband, Kenny, fills up the holes with plaster. They figure that the families won’t be able to afford batteries. And they don’t want children to feel like their dolls are empty inside.
Along the way, group members have mended each other as well. One started coming eight years ago when her husband died. She considered the group her therapy.
This year the dolls will be distributed by the Church of Mary Magdalene, Child Haven, First Avenue Service Center and the Salvation Army.
Most of the Dressers never get to see the children who finally get dolls.
Stout has seen a doll again only once. Several years ago a woman climbed onto her bus with a young girl hugging a doll. She instantly recognized the dress.
“Her hair was a mess,” Stout said. “But clearly it was loved.”
Sharon Pian Chan: 206-464-2958 or firstname.lastname@example.org