Saskatchewan

'He felt like he wasn't the only one': Sask. woman creates dolls for children with scars, disabilities

Paula Weber is a Regina woman who creates dolls with Feel Better Friends. She started learning how to crochet through YouTube videos and now has made 24 different dolls and is working on number 25.

Paula Weber has created 24 different Feel Better Friends dolls

When Brody (shown here with his aunt Paula Weber) received his Feel Better Friends doll, his mother Jaime said she was surprised. "I said, like ‘Paula oh my god he’s been feeling like he’s the only person that has this.'" (Heidi Atter/CBC)

Jaime Weber says she didn't know kids could have heart defects until she was pregnant with her own son, Brody.

Brody was born with a congenital heart defect. "He has something called double outlet right ventricle with a hole in his heart," Weber said.

Three years and two surgeries later, Brody was up and running with the other kids, but always felt left out.

When he was three and a half, his aunt Paula Weber made him a Feel Better Friends doll. It had red hair like him, a Hulk shirt like him, and to his surprise a scar from heart surgery just like him.

"Brody carried that doll everywhere for a good month," his mom, Jaime said. "And showed his scar and then showed the doll's scar and said, 'see we match.'"

Paula Weber has a large amount of yarn and many little props for the dolls that she can customize for the children's style and favourite colour. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

Feel Better Friends is an international organization that creates dolls for kids who have disabilities or medical problems. They have removable legs for children amputees, removable wigs, surgery scars, and feeding tubes.

Paula Weber is one of 11 volunteers in Canada and the only crafter in the Canadian prairies. She started learning how to crochet online watching Youtube videos and found out about Feel Better Friends on social media around four years ago.

Paula said one of the requirements for Feel Better Friends is to make a test doll and she instantly thought of her nephew Brody.

"I thought 'wow, this would be the perfect time to make a doll that would have a heart scar and would look just like him,'" she said.

"He was so excited he had a little doll that he could show to other people," Paula said.  "I didn't realize then how important it was for these kids to be accepted and just to have someone."

She said each doll takes about 20-30 hours to make.

"Depending on what kind of medical background they have or what kind of scars or what kind of procedures that they're going through," she said.

Brody Weber

Jaime said her sister-in-law Paula surprised them with the doll when Brody was three years old, a few months after his second surgery.

"Even I was very emotional," Jaime said. "It was great to have him say 'I'm not unique, there's other people that are just like me.' Even though it was just a doll he felt like he wasn't the only one."

Jaime said Brody isn't expected to need further surgeries.

"He was a very tough guy and pushed through it and he did very well," she said. "I don't think I could go through it again."

Jaime Weber said when Brody got his Feel Better Friends doll, he took it everywhere. “My dad ended up having to have heart surgery and he said ‘maybe Paula can make you a doll, Grandpa.’” (Heidi Atter/CBC)

"Three years later I find Brody will sometimes take the doll and sometimes it will sit on a special place on his dresser," Jaime said. "We've taught Brody very much to be proud of his scar and to show it off and I think he uses his doll to show that this is what I look like underneath."

"I think Paula making these dolls is phenomenal," she said. "She kind of puts brightness in people's days with it."

Maddox Polasek

Maddox Polasek was diagnosed with Gaucher disease when he was around nine months old. He is now around 15 months old.

"He was the first person in Saskatchewan to be diagnosed with this disease," said his mother, Christine Polasek. "He's had a really rough I guess seven, eight months now. He's been in and out of the hospital several times."

During the latest 56-day hospital stay in Saskatoon, Polasek decided to place an order for a Feel Better Friend for Maddox.

"He was going through a lot of different things this new year and he had several  surgeries I thought it would be a really good representation of him and this chapter of our lives."

Maddox's mother Christine Polasek said she was amazed by the detail in Maddox's doll's outfit. His 'Brave little guy' shirt was his favourite and his nickname was Max the Brave. "It’s incredible like the detail that she put into the outfit." (Submitted by Christine Polasek)

The doll was ready before they were out of the hospital but they held off so Paula could hand deliver it and meet Maddox.

"It's absolutely incredible, it completely like blew me away. And it's incredible to see the two of them beside each other and like that doll really does look like Maddox," she said.

"It's something that he instantly was drawn to," she said. "I was impressed with how attached to it he was."

"It's definitely something that we're going to keep close to him and we'll cherish forever."

Paula Weber said she normally starts with the head of the doll, then the arms, then works up from the feet to the neck and attaches everything together. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

'It's brought a smile to their face'

Paula said in total she's done 24 dolls. One was for a boy named Jordan who was in a wheelchair.

"He was my first encounter with trying to create a crocheted wheelchair," Paula said. "It was quite the process."

"But his mom was so pleased with the doll and sent pictures right away saying what an honour it was and how much she appreciated having this keepsake of him," she said.

Paula said what keeps her going is knowing the difference it's making to the children.

"I've been very fortunate to hear back from a lot of these families," Paula said. "The thing that keeps me going is knowing that it's brought a smile to their face, if only temporarily. These kids are so amazing, and so brave and so strong that they're what keeps me going."

About the Author

Heidi Atter

AP/Journalist

Heidi Atter is a journalist working in Regina. She started with CBC Saskatchewan after a successful internship and has a passion for character-driven stories. Heidi has worked as a reporter, web writer, associate producer and show director so far, and has worked in Edmonton, at the Wainwright military base, and in Adazi, Latvia. Story ideas? Email heidi.atter@cbc.ca.

With files from CBC Saskatchewan's The Morning Edition.

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