Threading love throughout the community

In Southampton, Pennsylvania, the ACTS Retirement-Life Communities’ Southampton Estates has a room that literally hums with happiness. For 90 minutes each week, that room is filled with “girl talk” underscored by the familiar, comforting hum of machinery—sewing machinery. There, amid festive bolts of fabric, colorful spools of thread, rickrack, ribbons, buttons, bows, and the other accoutrements of the well-equipped sewing basket, a group of approximately 20 ladies known as the Southampton Sewing Club gather to chat, while relaxing with a cherished hobby.

In 1979, Mrs. Virginia (Ginny) Hollis, now age 94, helped organize the Sewing Club. In the beginning, getting together was fun, but as time passed, the ladies wanted their activity to be purposeful, to make a difference in their lives and the community around them. An opportunity to do that presented itself when The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia needed therapy dolls for its young, vulnerable patients. The ladies were delighted to meet that need and threw themselves into the project. To date, they have donated more than 29,000 handcrafted therapy dolls to the hospital and other medical facilities in the area.

“Because we make them for The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia,” says Mrs. Hollis, “we decided to call them ‘CHOP’ dollies.” CHOP dollies are plain rag dolls, she explains. For multicultural appeal, the therapy dolls are made in various skin tones.

Production is well organized, according to Mrs. Hollis. “Tables are set up for various tasks, which include cutting out patterns; running the old, but functional, sewing machines; stuffing the dolls; and sewing arms and legs onto each torso by hand,” she says.

A lot of goodwill and love get delivered at minimal expense. “Nearly all the materials we use are given to us or purchased through monetary donations,” says Mrs. Hollis. Stuffing is the only item that is purchased, and that is because there are some battings that work better in the club’s projects. When residents move into Southampton Estates, she explains, they are eager to eliminate some of their assorted flotsam, and the Sewing Club is happy to take it. “You know that women—especially women who sew—accumulate a lot of material, thread, and accessories,” she says.

“After the dolls are delivered in batches of three or four dozen at a time, the hospital provides all sorts of materials so the children can personalize their dollies,” says Mrs. Hollis. CHOP dollies have no faces so that each child can create a facial expression for his or her new companion.

Ginny Hollis with samples of the Southampton Sewing Club’s animal and comfort pillows

“It’s wonderful that we can help the children with our dolls,” says Mrs. Hollis happily. “CHOP dollies are so comforting to them. In fact, some children become so attached to their dolls that they relate to them as if they were the dolls’ mothers or doctors.” She adds, “Nurses find them helpful because they can watch the children play with their dolls and get an idea of what is going on in their minds emotionally. Doctors use the dolls to explain about a surgery the child might be having or to ask a child to show where he or she hurts.”

Because Mrs. Hollis realized that the ladies need an occasional break from the dolls, they began to make animal pillows. This line of specialty pillows features 15 types of animals, including dogs, cows, elephants, turtles, ducks, rabbits, and bears. “They really brighten the spirits of everyone who receives one, and it is a really fun and creative project for the club,” she says.

Hearing about the club’s charitable projects, another area hospital asked if the ladies could provide comfort pillows for their patients. “We’ve branched out,” laughs Mrs. Hollis. Two types of comfort pillows are produced: a roll pillow and a square pillow. The roll pillow benefits patients who are bedridden or confined to a wheelchair for long stretches of time. The square pillow is helpful for postsurgical patients to press against their incision sites when they have to cough as part of the recovery process. “These pillows have another function,” says Mrs. Hollis. Because they are made with colorful fabrics and are beautifully decorated, the pillows not only provide physical comfort, but also help to lift patients’ spirits.

“It was so heartwarming and gratifying to actually see the children play with them. It makes every stitch worthwhile.” —Ginny Hollis

The ladies haven’t stopped at pillows, either. “Preemie hats are made by some of the ladies who don’t sew very much. Little pom-poms are added to the tops of the hats, and they are so cute. I’ve sent at least 200 of these darling hats to various hospitals,” says Mrs. Hollis.

Although donations carry the program, an annual pillow sale also raises funds to keep the ladies’ fingers flying. “The last sale netted us $265,” says Mrs. Hollis with pride, “and if anything is left over we distribute the pillows to a local police station to comfort a child when he or she is caught in a difficult situation.” And children receiving animal pillows in homeless shelters benefit from the inherent goodness of these ladies, too.

The contributions of the women of the Southampton Sewing Club have not gone unnoticed or unappreciated. When they hit the 20,000 CHOP dolly mark, Children’s Hospital honored the group with a thank-you breakfast, a framed certificate, and a tour of the hospital so they could see their CHOP dollies at work. “It was so heartwarming and gratifying to actually see the children play with them. It makes every stitch worthwhile,” comments Mrs. Hollis.

Unfortunately, sewing is a vanishing art. Mrs. Hollis asks, “If we don’t do this, who will?” Without the talents and thoughtfulness of these special ladies, many ill or frightened people would be deprived of the comfort and solace that the Southampton Estates Sewing Club’s pillows and dolls provide.

For further information, Susan Arcadia, Executive Director, Southampton Estates, can be reached at (215) 364-0500.

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