Johanna Kuntz started a comfort doll program at Kemptville District Hospital to ease suffering of hospitalized children. Photo courtesy Kemptville District Hospital

Dolls bring smiles to hospitalized kids

By 
  • December 12, 2020

When COVID-19 is finally conquered, there will be about 1,000 dolls ready to get back to doing what they do best at Kemptville District Hospital — putting smiles on kids’ faces.

For the last several years, Johanna Kuntz has led a program that knits handmaid comfort dolls for children at the hospital in the town south of Ottawa in eastern Ontario.

An emergency room volunteer for the past three years, Kuntz designs the one-of-a-kind toys to cheer up kids who show up at the hospital in need of medical care.

The pandemic has put a halt to the distribution of the dolls since March, but the not the work to create them.

The program recently completed its 1,000th doll. The hospital has stockpiled a good supply of the dolls for when it is safe for volunteers to resume pre-COVID duties

“I thought it would be kind of nice for the little kids who are coming in because I would see them with their moms and the dads who were trying to keep these kids busy while they’re waiting in the emergency department,” said Kuntz. “It’s a terrible thing to try to keep a child occupied when they’re not feeling well. I just thought, how about if I made these little comfort dolls — I had seen an idea like it on the Internet — and I thought, ‘OK, let’s try it out.’ ”

Kuntz, who retired as an adult mental health nurse from Mississauga, Ont.’s Credit Valley Hospital in 2016, approached the infection control people at the hospital to ensure her doll prototypes met all the health regulations. The hospital immediately liked the idea and said as long as they stuck to a no- button, no-loose-piece design, and everything was washable, then the project had a green light. Kuntz started with a simple pattern and it took off from there.

“I’m like the Walmart greeter of the emergency department,” she joked. “Crafting has been a passion of mine, straight from grade school. Making the dolls was an idea that just kind of grew and grew and took on a life of its own.”

Though the program has been on a COVID-induced hiatus — Kuntz normally volunteers in the emergency room one day a week but has not been there since March — the work continues, including by a small group of students from St. Michael Catholic High School

Inspired by Kuntz, hospital volunteer Mairi Hallman started a knitting club at St. Michael’s in 2019 to contribute to the comfort doll initiative. (Hallman has since moved on to the University of Ottawa). Lead volunteer Connie Parsons worked with Hallman to get the program off the ground and was blown away by her experience as students learned to create the small toys from scratch.

“Well, you know, it was my first experience working with the Roman Catholic school board,” said Parsons. “I’ve always been in the public sector of education and I don’t know that what happened in that knitting group would have ever necessarily happened in the public-school situation. There was definitely a difference in the way the children were behaving.... It was for me a very positive experience.”

Principal Tracy O’Brien says she is pleased students from the school were not only able to contribute to the program but left a lasting impression.

“Social outreach is an important part of learning for our students and supporting the community through initiatives like these is a great way for students to learn and grow,” said O’Brien. “We are very proud of our students at St. Michael Catholic High School and how they consistently respond to Jesus’ call to service.”

Kuntz ensures the dolls come in all skin shades, shapes and sizes. Before distributing she of course asks parents for permission and says to date she has never been turned down. Kuntz invites each child to give their doll a name and is grateful for the opportunity to spread a little joy in what is usually a difficult or scary moment.

She is thankful for the generous support of the community whose donations of supplies such as yarn and stuffing material keep the initiative afloat.

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