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Labor of love: Lucken gives dolls new life

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

(Sentinel photo by Amy Erickson) Donna Lucken, of Le Mars, looks at a doll she has outfitted in new hand-sewn clothes. She began "rescuing" dolls at thrift stores after five months of chemotherapy following a diagnosis of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma in 2011. The dolls will be given to girls in need in time for Christmas.
Golden-haired dolls, dark-haired dolls, fancy dolls, baby dolls -- Donna Lucken loves them all.

For the past nearly two years the Le Mars woman has rescued about 100 dolls from area thrift stores.

She brings them home, washes their bodies, fixes their hair, and sews clothes for them, giving the dolls new life.

Donna Lucken, of Le Mars, sits in the room where she sews new clothes for her doll project. Her husband, Arlen, calls this area the "operating room."
When they are ready, Lucken plans to give those dolls to girls, who otherwise may have not had one this Christmas.

The doll project started after Lucken was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma in February 2011, followed by five months of chemotherapy.

"I was completely wiped out," she said. "I always liked to sew and do crafts."

Donna Lucken has spent the last nearly two years buying dolls at thrift stores which she then redresses in hand-sewn clothes. The nearly 100 dolls will be given to girls in need in time for Christmas.
But chemotherapy depleted her energy making her usual hobbies difficult.

Then her daughter, an elementary teacher in Sioux City, told her about two little girls who really needed dolls, Lucken said.

"I bought two and I sewed clothes for them," she said. "I thought 'this is kind of fun so I'm going to do some more of these.'"

And so it began.

Lucken, driven by her husband, Arlen, started visiting area thrift stores and "rescuing" dolls.

"Some needed new clothes, some needed hair," Lucken said. "I would bring them home and give them a bath."

The dolls cost anywhere from 25 cents to $1 a piece.

Sometimes the dolls need minor repairs.

For example, Lucken found one that had a permanent mustache and eyebrows someone had drawn with a marker.

"I found a brand new doll head," she said. "I brought it home and did it all new."

Another time she found a doll with one eye closed and the other open so she glued the closed eye open, Lucken said.

"I've given hair cuts. I've put rollers in their hair," she said. "I've done the whole bit."

As for the dolls' clothes, she began sewing them from material she had on hand.

From dresses, to pants, to sleepers, to fancy dresses, Lucken has made them all in what Arlen calls the "operating room."

It's there Lucken chooses materials of all colors and designs from a closet, sits down at her sewing machine and creates.

The nice thing is she knows that every outfit she makes "is going to fit somebody," Lucken said.

She generally uses simple clothing patterns, but sometimes she will do a little more difficult one that may take three or four hours to complete, Lucken said.

"Some days I sew all afternoon for one doll," she said. "My cancer is in remission so I have a lot more energy."

Outfitting the dolls is only a part of her efforts.

"I thought all those baby dolls needed blankets. What baby doesn't have a blanket?" she said. "So I started making blankets for them."

When Lucken takes the dolls to area women's shelters or to other girls in need, each will leave with three outfits and one blanket.

She only has one request -- that the twin dolls she found go to the same home.

"I'm not going to separate the twins," Lucken said.

Most of her dolls will be given away, although she might keep one of her favorites.

"I think there will be more than one," Arlen said with a grin.

Lucken said she wants to share her dolls with children, some of whom may have had to leave theirs behind when they left home.

"I wish I could see the little girls get these," Lucken said. "It's just fun to imagine their faces."

Her efforts to make the thrift store dolls suitable for other little girls stems from her own love of dolls, she said.

"My dolls were all really special to me," Lucken said. "I didn't get a lot of dolls growing up."

Her doll rescue project has really filled a hole in her life since her cancer diagnosis, she said.

"I thought I could sit around and feel sorry for myself or I could find something to do," Lucken said. "This has been so wonderful. I get so absorbed I forget myself."

She added that when she can't sit at the sewing machine anymore, there's always blankets to make.

"I love to knit and crochet," she said.

Throughout the years Lucken has had other hobbies such as making rag rugs or knitting scarves, but the dolls have been the most fun, Lucken said.

"I've enjoyed this one more than any I've ever done," she said.

And the doll project is not one she plans to give up, even after her dolls find new homes.

"It is going to be sad to see them go," Lucken said. "But I just think about getting going on some more outfits and looking for some more dolls."

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