CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — Initially, “Smile Dolls” have no eyes, nose or mouth.
The smile comes later when it’s created by the child who receives the stuffed, handmade toy.
Ann Tanzi leads the Cranston Senior Center volunteers in a program that’s been around for more than 20 years.
“The children smile when they get them,” Tanzi said. “So we call them ‘Smile Dolls.'”
The ladies are a doll-making machine, even if they’re hard-working hands have a crick or two.
When asked how many are dealing with arthritis, they all raised their hands and laughed, many saying the handiwork helps their ailment.
Coventry’s Barbara Breard started volunteering 23 years ago when she was considered the kid in the group at the age of 68.
‘My husband passed away, and I was home alone and I thought I should do some volunteer work,” Breard said. “I like doing it. It’s nice coming here every day.”
One volunteer traces the outline of a doll and then passes it on for someone else to cut it out.
Another cog in the machine stitches it together and hands the creation off to someone who stuffs it full of softness.
Eventually, they are circulated to Breard.
“I just hope the kids all like the outfit that’s on them,” she said.
The face is left blank, but with purpose.
“Because the children we give them to will express what they want on that face,” Tanzi said. “And maybe they make their own color eyes, hair, which would mean more to them than us doing that.”
The dolls go to nursing homes and daycare facilities, but many will help children facing the worst days of their young lives.
Over the years, firefighters have given “Smile Dolls” to children burned out of their homes. Police put them in the young hands of kids caught in the middle of domestic violence, or worse.
One bundle of kindness was picked up by Devereux Therapeutic Foster Care out of Warwick. Forty dolls provided for children who could use a hug and maybe a chance to create their own smile on the blank canvas.
“We had one agency director who had a child who was an orphan,” Tanzi said.
She recalls many stories about the children the dolls have helped, including that orphan.
“When she was adopted she would run under the table to eat, so her dad would do the same thing for weeks until she got used to coming out,” Tanzi said. “When he gave a doll to the child, it put a smile on their face.”
Tanzi said the demand is not slowing down.
“In fact, in the next week or so, there will be 200 going out,” Tanzi said. “I told them, ‘Let’s get busy here.'”
And busy they are, making about 15 dolls a day.
Over the past two decades, that’s added up to helping thousands of children across the area.