This retired grandma spends $1,500 a year giving American Girl dolls to kids in need—with a little help from Reddit

A girl with her doll peeking out of her backpack watches as a street entertainer in New York.
JEWEL SAMAD | AFP | Getty Images

One woman in Maine gets regular shipments of body parts — arms, legs, even eyes — and these packages help brighten the holidays of children all over the country.

That's because Susan Olsen, a 63-year-old retired grandmother, spends countless hours finding and refurbishing used American Girl dolls. Some of them need a lot of tender loving care, and perhaps a replacement limb or two, before they're ready for a new home.

These 18-inch dolls, which have been around since the mid-1980s, are a mainstay of little kids' holiday wish lists. The company now offers a wide array of options, including dolls that look like you. The only problem is the price. The tremendously popular dolls retail for $115 each, and accessory packs start at an additional $20.

That puts them out of financial reach for many parents. And that's where Olsen comes in. After experiencing financial hardship herself when she was a young mother, she now uses her retirement to give back. Helping other families also gives her something to live for, she says.

She spends all year collecting used dolls from venues like Craigslist and Goodwill and fixing them up. Once they look nearly brand new, she gives the dolls away by way of a Reddit group devoted to helping families in need around the holidays.

"I love people, I love kids and I love helping," Olsen says. "I like being able to help parents have that special bond with their children. Give them that special gift."

All she asks in return, if it works out, is a photo of the child with the doll. "You see the smiles and the kids hugging their dolls or jumping up and down — that's what makes it worth it," Olsen says.

And this is gearing up to be her biggest year yet.

The start

Susan Olsen, 63, with the American Girl dolls she's fixed up so far this year. 
Source: Susan Olsen

You might not expect a 63-year-old retiree to be a Reddit super-user, but Olsen is online several times a day. She's an active moderator on several subreddits.

It started seven years ago, after her husband died. "I had never been alone," she says. She didn't really know what to do with herself. Her youngest daughter gave her a suggestion. "She told me about Reddit, how they help people and stuff," Olsen says.

She started with a subreddit where people helped out by sending food and eventually moved onto the popular r/Assistance subreddit. That's where she connected with Wayne Bomgaars.

"I often refer to [Olsen] as the best friend I have never met," Bomgaars says. "Over 3,000 miles separate us, but we talk every day and together have witnessed miracles that would melt your heart."

Together, they hatched the idea to create a Christmas-gift-themed assistance subreddit. "People come on assistance and talk about how they can't afford to do Christmas," she says. "We just saw a need and no one else was doing it." With that, /r/SantasLittleHelpers was born.

The moderators ask parents in need to supply an Amazon wish list. "It's almost like you go and pick a name off the Christmas tree, only they come in Reddit," Olsen says.

I don't make a profit off this, that's for sure. This is something dear to me. It keeps me alive.
Susan Olsen

Olsen knows firsthand how hard it can feel for cash-strapped families around the holidays: She remembers what it was like not to have quite enough for holiday gifts herself. Even though her husband made "pretty good money," Olsen says her daughters never received one of these dolls. Spending over $100 for one present just wasn't possible. "I understand that, because I've been in their position and it's not fun. It's not fun to go ask for help. It takes a lot sometimes, it really does. My heart goes out to them," she says.

Then, when SantasLittleHelpers was starting up, she ran into a financial crunch of her own. Olsen's step granddaughter Abby asked her for an American Girl doll for Christmas but, with several other grandchildren to provide for and a fixed monthly income to work with, a $100 doll was out of the question. When Olsen tried to explain, Abby earnestly replied, "I promise I'll never leave her like my mom left me."

"It tore my heart," Olsen says. But it didn't change the reality. So she decided to put in a request of her own into the mix on Reddit: a used American Girl doll for Abby. "I just wanted a used one that I could fix up like new for her and make her wish come true," she says.

A stranger did her one better, offering to buy a brand-new doll of Olsen's choosing, along with a few outfits. "When Abby opened it that Christmas morning, it brought tears to my eyes. She was hugging it and loving it," Olsen says.

The sheer joy that gift produced inspired her. "I thought about it and said, 'Let's do dolls.' So I started asking people if they had any dolls I could fix," Olsen says. Using the /r/SantasLittleHelpers group, she now gives away the dolls on an annual basis.

Half a decade later, SantasLittleHelpers is an entire operation that helps out thousands of families each holiday season. The group has raised roughly $250,000 to help out thousands of families with gifts, foods, decorations and other holiday items, according to Bomgaars.

"It's not just people donating money or buying a present. So much of it comes from the heart and provides something no money could buy," Bomgaars says.

The process

Source: Susan Olsen

Together with her partner Gene Chambers, Olsen scouts online marketplaces and every Goodwill she can find on her road-trips to visit her daughter in Florida.

"I buy most of them on marketplaces now. My sources have dried up lately," Olsen says. "I spend way too much."

Once she purchases a doll, the first step is to inspect it. When Olsen first started, if the doll had a terrible haircut or was missing a limb, she sent it to the American Girl doll hospital. A replacement head runs about $44, while eyes costs about $28 per doll, and limbs are $34 each — plus about $8 in shipping, according to the company.

That can add up fast when you're working with multiple dolls. Still, Olsen doesn't begrudge the cost. "To me, it's worth it," she says.

Over the years, Olsen and Chambers have upped their skills. They've learned to put new eyes in (a process even Olsen calls a "hard one") and recently they've learned how to re-wig the dolls. "You'd be surprised what I've learned to do in the last five years," she says with a laugh.

Usually, the doll needs a thorough cleaning and her limbs usually need to be adjusted. Tightening everything up is an involved process. Chambers is usually in charge of this step, which requires taking off the doll's head, unstuffing the doll's plush torso, and then adjusting the arms and legs until they are stiff again.

"The first time he took that head off the doll, I almost had a heart attack," she says. It's not like either of the volunteers has formal training. They learned tips and tricks watching YouTube videos.

While Chambers works on the body, Olsen focuses on the hair. American Girl dolls have thick, luxurious hair, but it can become frizzy and knotted. To restore it, Olsen gives the heads the full salon treatment.

First she washes and conditions the hair. If it's really bad, she'll perform a "hot dunk" on the head. She boils a pot of water, then lets it cool for about five minutes before repeatedly dunking the doll's hair in hot water, usually two or three times. Finally, she brushes out the wet hair with a wire brush bought from the American Girl store. "If you do that, the doll's hair will come out so smooth and pretty," she says.

All told, she typically spends about three to four hours on each doll. Even after they've been repaired, Olsen says she still keeps them looking fresh until the holidays. "Every week or so, I brush all the dolls' hair to keep them as silky as I can," Olsen says.

The giveaway

Susan Olsen has collected roughly two dozen American Girl dolls to give away. 
Source: Susan Olsen 

At the beginning of November, SantasLittleHelpers opens for business and Olsen really gets going. Each doll is given away through a series of contests that Olsen devises. These giveaways run the gambit from a Christmas tree coloring competition to a guessing game to discover Olsen's favorite Christmas song.

Olsen posts in SantasLittleHelpers, alerting parents that the contest is open and giving details about how to "win" the doll. She purposely raffles off the dolls rather than just giving them away. These easy-to-win contests, she says, allow parents to maintain their dignity. "People feel better if they win them as opposed to just, 'Here's a doll for you.' I want people to feel like they're giving their daughter that doll, not me," Olsen says.

When each contest concludes, Olsen gently packs each doll into a brand-new American Girl gift box that she buys from the company for about $7 each. "That really does set off the doll," she says. "When they go to the kids, they really do look new," she adds, saying that she also tries to include an extra outfit and even some wrapping paper for the parents in case they don't have any.

I want people to feel like they're giving their daughter that doll, not me.
Susan Olsen

Of course, there have been bumps along the way. "I have people on [Reddit] who think I'm a horrible person," she says. One year she gave away a doll that had a wonky eye, as she calls it. The woman who received the doll for her daughter wrote in saying the doll gave her daughter nightmares. Olsen was hurt. But she doesn't let that experience overshadow the many success stories.

"I don't make a profit off this, that's for sure. This is something dear to me. It keeps me alive," Olsen says. In total, Olsen has given away just under 50 dolls over the past five years, and in 2018 she's aiming to give away at least 25 — the most she's ever given away in a single year.

So far this year Olsen has about two dozen dolls she's prepping for the holidays, with more on the way. She's hoping the group's new website will attract some additional donations before the holiday season kicks off. But if nothing materializes, that's fine too.

"I'm on a monthly income, but I don't care. If I can make one kid happy, then yep, I've done it," she says.

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