Retiree co-founds SantasLittleHelpers, refurbishing dream dolls for children in need during the holidays

When 63-year-old Susan Olsen lost her husband seven years ago, she had to come to terms with a new life—one that involved a lot more alone time and no clear path forward.

In an effort to find that path and some positive social interaction, she took a suggestion from her daughter to join Reddit, a massive network of discussion boards where one can easily find a community of people just like them.  On Reddit, there’s a group or “sub” revolving around any—and we mean any—topic or interest someone can think of.  And if it somehow doesn’t exist?  YOU can create it.

Olsen found her community on /r/Assistance, a subreddit dedicated to helping those in need. Users, or “redditors,” can post requests for assistance and other redditors can respond to fulfill those requests.

Teaming up with another /r/Assistance redditor, Olsen created a new subreddit, /r/SantasLittleHelpers, dedicated to crowdsourcing the Christmas lists of children whose families can’t afford to give them their dream Christmas.  Parents submit their children’s lists via Amazon, and generous redditors come together to provide as many of the items as they can.

Today, /r/SantasLittleHelpers has donated $250,000 to help families in need around the holidays. The donations go toward gifts, decorations, and food for celebrations.

Olsen herself became a beneficiary of /r/SantasLittleHelpers when her granddaughter wanted an American Girl doll for Christmas.  These dolls are extremely popular, but at $115 per doll plus the price of outfits and accessories, they are well out of reach for many families.  Being on a fixed income, Olsen simply couldn’t afford to spend that kind of money on a single gift.

Though Olsen only asked for a used doll in the hopes of fixing it up, a kind redditor chose to buy a brand-new doll for Olsen’s granddaughter. Her granddaughter’s delight on Christmas morning inspired Olsen to start her next project: collecting used American Girl dolls, refurbishing them, and donating them to children in need.

Each year, Olsen chases marketplace leads on used dolls, purchases them, and sends dolls needing repair to the “American Girl doll hospital.”  Over the years, she’s learned how to complete some of the repairs herself, like replacing eyes and hair.  With a partner, she re-stuffs bodies, readjusts limbs, and gives the toy a thorough cleaning.

When the dolls are ready, Olsen holds contests on /r/SantasLittleHelpers that allow parents to earn the dolls for their children—something she feels allows parents to feel ownership of the gift.  Dolls are then packed in new American Girl doll boxes so they look as good as new once the child receives it.

Though Olsen accepts donations for her work, she still largely operates at a loss buying the dolls and paying for repairs and boxes.  She spends around $1,500 per year getting these toys to their new owners.

But for her, the joy she can give to a child in need is worth far more than she spends.  In return for her work, she asks only that parents send her a photo of the child and their new doll.

“You see the smiles and the kids hugging their dolls or jumping up and down—that’s what makes it worth it.”