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DECATUR — A soft toy can make a lot of difference to an upset child.

At the Macon County Health Department, when kids arrive for vaccinations or finger sticks to test for lead, they often need comfort.

“When they're coming in for vaccines, if they're really scared, or crying, we can pull (a doll) out for that,” said Carol Carlton, director of clinical nursing services. “Especially for the smaller ones, it's something they can cuddle and hold onto.”

The Golden K Kiwanis makes and delivers dolls to the police, the sheriff's department, the fire department and Good Samaritan Inn. Their motto is “Serving the children of the world,” said member Susan Rayhill, co-chairwoman of the project with Mary Jean Bauer.

“We went to a (Kiwanis) conference and heard them talk about it about five years ago, and we brought it back to the club and said, 'Why can't we try this?'” Rayhill said. “We started by making 30 dolls, and we have 780 out in the community as of yesterday.”

The Golden K members meet every couple of months for a doll-making session, splitting up the jobs of cutting, sewing, stuffing and finishing the dolls. Rayhill joked that the women entice the men to come by offering them refreshments. Each doll has a tag attached identifying it as a gift from the Golden K. The group packs them in boxes of 30 and delivers them, as needed, to their various recipient organizations.

The dolls are made of soft flannel and fiberfill stuffing, in a shape roughly like that of a gingerbread man cookie, but without faces or any defining features. Part of the reason for that, Rayhill said, is so the child can use his or her imagination. The doll can be a human, or an animal, or whatever the child wants it to be. The child can draw a face on or leave it blank, and the toy is the child's to keep.

Schools throughout the country are training personnel to be "trauma-sensitive" and trauma-informed practices have become a daily part of the school day. Locally, the Trauma-Informed Partnership includes Macon County schools, the Education Coalition of Macon County, Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, first-responders, the Illinois Education Association and the Macon-Piatt Regional Office of Education. Understanding the ways in which chaos and trauma can make physical changes to a child's brain, and the emotional response children have to trauma, is the focus of the training. 

When firefighters or police encounter children in traumatic circumstances, Rayhill said, sometimes the child has lost everything, and the trauma doll not only comforts the child at the moment, but gives them something of their own again.

“The kids have some kind of trauma,” Rayhill said. “It could be a fire, it could be they're at the emergency room. Any place where kids could be upset and the idea is to give the kids something that's theirs. Little kids just love them. Many of the kids don't have anything except the clothes on their backs and this gives them something to soothe their woes. We've had doctors put bandages on the dolls, or pretend it has a broken bone, or pretend to give a shot to the doll, to settle the kids down.”

Contact Valerie Wells at (217) 421-7982. Follow her on Twitter: @modgirlreporter

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