MILFORD TOWNSHIP – Sitting well off a backroad in Milford Township, up a gravel driveway that leads to a set of damp, wooden steps, lies what is without a doubt the most festive house for miles.
On the outside, wreaths fill the porch, accompanied by Santa Claus statues and Christmas-related traffic signs. Inside, the holiday spirit increases tenfold – toy trains whizz around the living room while holiday-themed trinket villages come to life. The fluorescent glow of multi-colored lights, wrapped carefully around the tree, brightens the living room. It smells like tinsel and happiness.
Standing in the middle of this red-and-green masterpiece is Joyce Smith, proud owner of the area’s most festive setup, and rightfully so – no one loves Christmas more than her.
“I love Christmas,” Smith, 58, said Friday, her eyes lighting up as she motioned toward her mini Christmas village replica. “This is 30 years of collecting and I actually cut it down in half twice. You wouldn’t believe it, but I did. This is how I celebrate.”
But in reality, Smith’s celebration begins well before the holiday season. She celebrates year-round by continuing a tradition she began four years ago, when she realized she could no longer work due to back issues. She turned to crafting, which led her to her true passion – restoring dolls for those in need.
It’s become more than just a hobby. Smith restored 117 dolls this year, handing most of them out to little girls and families at Centerburg Interchurch Social Services’ annual Christmas distribution day last Monday. She gives them away for free; for most of the girls she meets, this is their only opportunity to own a doll like this.
Over the last four years, more than 500 girls have received her dolls. She spends hours cleaning and restoring the dolls, some of which are donated and some of which she finds at local thrift stores. At the end of the year, she takes the boxes of refurbished, repackaged dolls down the gravel driveway and over to the Centerburg Interchurch pantry, where she sets up a booth.
Before the annual Christmas distribution day, Centerburg Interchurch collects a list of families within the Centerburg school district that have signed up to receive holiday gifts. Volunteers within the program retrieve the items and on the day of the program, families can come in and pick up their gifts. That’s when they see Smith’s booth, “Hand Me Down Dolls,” and the bounty of restored and wrapped dolls surrounding her.
“There was this one little girl there, she must have been about 4 years old, and she ran up and she was looking and looking at the dolls,” Smith recalls, talking about this year’s Day of Giving. “And she picked one up and she just hugged and hugged and hugged it. And it just melted my heart.”
This is a common occurrence, Centerburg Interchurch Branch Manager Sheryl O’Neil said.
“Our families are needy, a lot of kids don’t even have dolls,” O’Neil said. “So it’s just this way of making sure every little girl that would want a doll is able to have a doll. And they’re not charged, they’re given to them.”
That reaction alone makes it all worthwhile for Smith, who admits that chronic back pain and fibromyalgia make it harder to transport the dolls each year. She said that after this year’s Day of Giving, she spent three days recovering.
But to truly understand why this matters to Smith – why it became somewhat of a life mission after working 30 years as a nurse – one must understand where she came from.
The girl who hugged and hugged and hugged the doll just days ago? That was her, Smith said. Only she wasn’t so lucky.
Smith grew up in a blue collar family on the north side of Youngstown in the 1970s.
Her father was a roofer and her mother worked in the restaurant business. Smith was one of seven children, and the youngest of three girls. They didn’t have much, Smith said, but they didn’t know it. The best Christmases were when her father would come home from work with a bag of candy bars or McDonald’s hamburgers.
“They were cold and probably nasty but they were the best things to us,” Smith says now, smiling.
Christmas often meant coloring books and stockings, which was fine for Smith and her siblings. It rarely included dolls, until one year.
When Smith was five, her two sisters scored Baby First Step dolls – which Smith direly wanted – and she did not. It stuck with her; she longed to hug the 1965 classic creation, with the bright blonde hair and the pink dress, and she vowed that one day, she would get one.
Years later, she found it. She purchased it online and now it sits in a guarded glass case near her bedside, a personal connection to her childhood self.
But she still remembers that feeling. She remembers wanting a doll but not being able to afford it, even though she didn’t realize it at the time.
That feeling fuels her mission today. She gains great pride from telling girls just like her to “pick whichever one they want” when they approach her booth. She smiles when she thinks about the families, who are always appreciative and often taken aback by the experience.
“They love the dolls, and I think that keeps me going too,” Smith said. “They’re very appreciative.”
Ever since her childhood, Smith has continued to love dolls. She owns several collectors’ items, but is quick to note that she’s not a “doll hoarder, like a lot of collectors.” Many of her dolls will eventually be restored and given back to Centerburg’s needy; the others she’s restored will help fund her granddaughter’s college education down the road.
“I look at it as an investment,” Smith said.
The restoral process is time-consuming but therapeutic. She starts with the doll’s hair, washing it and brushing it “a couple strands at a time.” Then she styles the hair, putting it in rollers or curling it with a brush. She can also re-root hair, something she learned from Google, which is where she says she picks up almost all of her restoral tricks these days.
That’s where she learned to restring a doll, which involves replacing the rubber bands that hold so many older dolls together, connecting the arms and legs and head.
When it comes to polishing and restoring the doll’s exterior, she’s learned a few tricks. If kids have made lipstick or marker stains on the doll’s skin, she uses a homemade solution of acne cream and 10 percent peroxide to get it off. After wiping the solution off and setting the doll in the sun for a day (which she admits is hard to do in Ohio), the exterior appears as good as new.
The last step is finding clothing and shoes that fit each doll. This can be hard, she says, as the quantity of dolls and doll clothing in thrift stores has decreased over the years.
Smith receives dolls year-round from people who want them restored. She doesn’t charge much – usually $25 or $30 per doll – but also doesn’t guarantee that she can save every one.
“Right up front, I say, ‘I have no idea how it’s going to look when I’m done,’” Smith said. “It will look better, that’s the only thing I can guarantee.”
Smith receives dolls from all different generations; the oldest doll she’s refurbished was from the 1940s, and she said it “came out well.” She attacks each project with a relentless spirit, unwilling to give a doll back until she feels it’s received the proper care.
“I don’t like to give a doll back or even restore one for the kids unless I’m happy with it,” Smith said. “So sometimes I will start working on them and I’ll have to set it aside and I’ll do something else because I’ll get frustrated. But I’ll pick it up later because I don’t like to give up on them.”
She doesn’t give up – not on the dolls, and certainly not on herself. Starting Hand Me Down Dolls (a name she came up with after thinking of her childhood, where hand-me-downs were the norm) has given her a mission after being unable to work.
It’s a way for her to give back to the community and Interchurch, which she said has helped her since she stopped working.
Over the years, she’s gotten quicker. She made 12 dolls on the spot during the Day of Giving this year; it used to take several days to do one doll. There were plenty left over this year, so she sent some to Pat Pennell and Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard in Howard, which helps families during the holiday season.
She gave the rest to a group of teachers in Columbus who were gathering dolls to give to their students and had reached out to her for help (since the Mount Vernon News reported on her tradition in November, many more have reached out to her with restoration requests).
Smith enjoys thinking about how it’s all grown since she started. She used to struggle to put 80 dolls on the table, and now she’s shipping extras across the region. And to think, she does it all herself – she finds the dolls, she repairs the dolls, and she hands the dolls out on her own time.
It’s work, and it isn’t easy. But when she looks at the little girls across the table each year, it all becomes worth it.
“There’s a need,” she says, “because the dolls go fast.”
Given her health condition, Smith is not sure how much longer she’ll be able to distribute the dolls.
She thought about calling it quits after this year, but when she saw the kids and the families and once again felt the rush of giving the dolls away, she decided she’d wait another year.
“I’ll do it as long as I can,” Smith said Friday. “Next year it will be five years for me, so we’ll see.”
O’Neil, who has served at Interchurch’s Centerburg branch for seven years, hopes the tradition will continue. She said Smith’s mission aligns perfectly with that of Interchurch, which served 90 families this year from the Centerburg school district.
“It’s just a very personal connection (she has) with some of these families,” O’Neil said of Smith. “They really enjoy coming in and seeing what dolls she has accumulated, because she gets the antique dolls, she gets current dolls. It’s just a very unique connection between the people.”
O’Neil hopes that Smith’s generosity will breed more generosity, as it could potentially resonate with the girls she’s impacted over the years.
“It may start something with them as far as in the future, you know. They may want to become another Joyce, someone that gives back to the community through dolls,” O’Neil said. “It’s just very unique.”
Staring at the toy trains in her living room, whirring throughout the house on three congruent tracks, lit by the glow of the lights wrapped around her tree, Smith explained that she was, in fact, carrying on a tradition.
Her family didn’t have much, but they made sure to give Christmas its due.
“My mom and dad did what they could,” Smith said. “We put the tree up. And they always had a village and a train under the tree, and that was a tradition I kept going.”
Now, Smith has started her own Christmas tradition – that of giving. By giving local girls what she couldn’t have at their age, she gains a sense of satisfaction. In a way, the feeling is a gift in itself. It’s her way of celebrating.
“You know,” Smith said, pausing to grin and ponder it all, “I love Christmas.”
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