It started with a simple goal – providing comfort to children in need at Hasbro Children’s Hospital.
Since then, volunteer Ann Tanzi said the production of “Smile Dolls” through the Cranston Senior Enrichment Center’s Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) has come to benefit a range of community organizations across Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts.
“It just got bigger and bigger,” she said, praising the “wonderful group of ladies who worked very, very hard on this.”
Volunteers make 200 to 250 of the dolls each month, with 2,400 created and donated annually. Over the past five years, the program has produced a total of 12,000 dolls.
The dolls – made for both boys and girls – were initially designed to help prepare youngsters getting ready for surgery at the children’s hospital. Marianne Cooney, manager of child life services at the hospital, said the dolls help children “understand the kinds of things that may happen to them when they are in the hospital.”
Children are also able to personalize the dolls, drawing on faces and hair and even using earrings and nail polish.
As the program has grown, dolls have also been donated to the state Department of Children, Youth & Families, the Urban League of RI, Prevent Child Abuse RI, the Church of the Annunciation and the Cranston Police Department.
The use of the dolls varies depending on the circumstance, but the focus on providing comfort and creating a safe way to communicate remains the same.
“This is kind of a way to get the child to open up,” said Bina Gehres, one of the volunteers.
Recently, the program has expanded to New Bedford, Mass. In December, after Gehres reached out to officials in that city, she and other Cranston volunteers visited New Bedford and donated 240 dolls to the Department of Community Services. The dolls were then distributed to Child and Family Services of New Bedford, Community Connections and the Women’s Center.
“We loved the idea when Bina got in touch with us,” said John Lobo, neighborhood liaison for New Bedford’s Department of Community Services. “It’s made a lot of impact with the youth … it’s really great.”
On Feb. 27, New Beford representatives, including Lobo, New Bedford Council on Aging Director Debra Lee and Assistant Director Pamela Amaral-Lema, made a follow-up trip to Cranston, getting a tour of the senior center, Garden City and Chapel View and meeting with Mayor Allan Fung.
Cranston volunteers also presented a framed photo collage with scenes from the December trip to New Bedford.
Amaral-Lema said the partnership between Cranston and New Bedford has been a “team effort” with participants “united for the greater good.”
“This is a great partnership,” said Fung. “We can all learn from each other.”
Aside from Tanzi and Gehres, Cranston volunteers for the “Smile Dolls” program include Sandra Assanti, Rosa Beneducci, Antonia Benvenuti, Barbara Breard, Anthony Cordo, Antonina Cozzo, Janet Desjardins, Nancy Gallo, Josephine Galluccio, Frances Kaplan, Marjorie Kollette, Teruko Langwell, Virginia Manish, Jan Messier, Rita Morino, Helen Okolwitz, Candida Perez, Marie Renza, Marie Renzulli, Rose Stahlbush, Ruby Sweetwine and Souad “Sussy” Tashian.
Officials from both communities cited plans to continue their partnership. Sue Stenhouse, executive director of senior services in Cranston, praised the Smile Dolls program for bringing seniors and communities together behind a positive cause.
“It’s a team effort, no matter what,” she said.