MEXICO — When Susan Olsen’s granddaughter asked her for an American Girl doll the Christmas after Olsen’s husband died, she told the child she couldn’t afford it.
“That’s way too expensive,” Olsen told her.
The 63-year-old retired grandmother said her income dropped after her husband died 10 years ago and she had her children and other grandchildren to buy gifts for.
But as a member of the Reddit internet site, Olsen posted a request for a used American Girl doll and got a response from a woman to buy a new doll with two outfits and she would pay for them.
When her granddaughter got the doll, Olsen said, “she jumped and screamed and hollered.”
Since that experience, Olsen and her partner, Gene Chambers, have been refurbishing used American Girl dolls with parts found from online sources, yard sales and thrift shops. She estimates she spends about $1,500 a year on the makeovers and gives the finished dolls to children whose families request them on her r/SantasLittleHelper site on Reddit.
“Some I cannot help and I’ve had to send back to American Girl Doll hospital,” she said. The cost for a new head, plus shipping, is about $56. “The only thing I can’t fix is a bad haircut,” she said, but recently she learned how to attach wigs.
“I get a lot of joy seeing kids smile, seeing them happy; it’s nice to make other people happy. It’s just the way I am. I love children, I always have,” Olsen said.
Since joining the online Reddit site, she created a subreddit called r/SantasLittleHelper where subscribers provided more than $10,000 in gifts during a six-week period last year.
“In the last five years, we have managed to provide a quarter million dollars in gifts, food, cards and letters, decorations and anything else to do with Christmas,” said Wayne Bomgaars, who works with Olsen through the subreddit r/assistance.
Besides giving and volunteering for her online community, Olsen has also donated American Girl dolls to Hailey Hugs, a charity for childhood cancer awareness in Bethel, and one family in the Rumford, Mexico or Dixfield area every year.
What started out as a way to beat loneliness and make make friends after her husband’s death has become the means for bringing joy to herself and to many families in need, Olsen said.
Retired grandmother Susan Olsen of Mexico hugs her granddaughter Isabella Skillen. Olsen refurbishes American Girl dolls with her partner, Gene Chambers, and gives them to children who request them. (Marianne Hutchinson/Rumford Falls Times)