From Creation to Community, LaBerge Builds Dollhouses for Local Charities

The exterior and interior design of a Santa dollhouse created by LaBerge

Nearly 10 years ago, South Burlington resident Linda LaBerge retired. To fill her time, she started dabbling with a gift her husband had given her back in the 1970s: her first dollhouse kit. What followed was not only the discovery of a newfound hobby but also a creative means of giving back to the community.

A Personal Connection

Over the last decade, LaBerge has built or refurbished over 50 dollhouses, all of which have been donated to local charities. One of these exquisite creations was recently donated to the Vermont Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. The three-story “Newport” style Victorian dollhouse, towering over three feet tall with seven fully-furnished rooms, is one of two prizes featured in the Vermont Chapter’s Ultimate Home for Holidays Raffle. Tickets are $20 for one and $30 for two, available for purchase through Nov. 30. One hundred percent of the proceeds will fund Alzheimer’s care, support, and research.

November is National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month and Family Caregivers Month.

This particular cause hits close to home for LaBerge, as it does for more than 16 million family members and friends across the U.S. serving as Alzheimer’s caregivers. In Vermont alone, there are 13,000 people aged 65 and older living with the disease, and over 30,000 caregivers providing unpaid care to their family members and friends living with Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

LaBerge has three family members affected by the disease. Her father and father in-law both had it around the same time in the 1980s “when they didn’t know much about it and we didn’t realize what was happening,” she said. Her father-in-law lived 45 minutes away from her South Burlington home, and she and her husband cared for him before bringing him to a nursing home. Her father was four-and-a-half hours away in New York and stayed with LaBerge’s mother until he, too, was admitted into a nursing home.

“I’m the kind of person who likes to fix things,” LaBerge said, referencing when her relatives were diagnosed. “I was ready to start doing that, and it turned out that you can’t. There was so much to learn about Alzheimer’s. Your patience runs out as a caregiver, and they’re not going to get better.”

Her brother, 86, also has Alzheimer’s. Described as “the most brilliant, most interesting man I ever met,” LaBerge explained that he acquired two bachelor’s degrees, two master’s degrees, and most of a PhD before he succumbed to the disease. Now, his personality is short-tempered.

She recalled a doctor’s essential lesson that still rings true.

“If your spouse, parent, or sibling gets it, the important thing for you as a caregiver is to figure out where that person is best placed: in your home or an institution. As long as you’re sure they’re safe and given the appropriate care, you should not let it destroy your own life.

“The old Vermont way of doing things was you brought them into your home, you took the furniture out of the living room, you put a hospital bed in and took care of them, and that meant giving up most of your own life,” LeBerge added.

According to the Vermont Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, family and friend caregivers provided 34,000 hours of unpaid care in the state during 2017, care that is valued at $430,000,000.

LaBerge’s dollhouse donation to the Alzheimer’s Association, Vermont Chapter is her way of contributing to the cause for finding a cure and spreading awareness.

Creating for the Community

When LaBerge started working on the dollhouse kit her husband bought her years ago, she said it brought her instant joy.

“I’m not exactly an interior decorator, but I have such fun putting them together!” she confessed.

The cost of assembling a dollhouse can range drastically. Dollhouse kits average about $500 and the cost of furnishing and decorating each room runs on average between $50-100. LaBerge also often scouts out great finds at garage sales, whether it’s the dollhouses themselves or materials. Regardless if it’s a $100 handmade bed or a 25 cent item at a garage sale, LaBerge finds purpose for it all, and cost is not a concern.

“I only care that the organizations get money (for the dollhouses),” she said. “Whatever it costs me, it costs me. That’s my choice.”

The details, whether in a dollhouse or a room box, are intricate and mirror the life-sized home improvements people make in their own homes. LaBerge uses a variety of materials, such as brick, wood, wallpaper, and porcelain, among others. Some dollhouses are designed for play, while other dollhouses are designed more for show.

LaBerge has put her talents to work for over 50 charities and organizations, including Mercy Connections, Camp Ta-Kum-Ta, various animal rescue leagues, the Travis Roy Foundation, Franklin County Home Health Agency, Lund Family Center, the Boys and Girls Club, the South Burlington Fire Department, The Arbors at Shelburne, and others.

When she catches wind of an event of interest, LaBerge reaches out to the organization with an explanation of what she does. Once the commitment is set, her hands go straight to work. She does her research to help with customization.

She explained the process of a dollhouse she created for the Flyin’ Ryan Hawks Foundation, a nonprofit honoring the life of Ryan Hawks, an extreme skier who passed away from injuries sustained during a Freeskiing World Tour Event in Kirkwood, Calif.

“I saw on a Wednesday that there was going to be an event over the weekend at the Catamount Family Center, and they were going to have a silent auction. I just emailed them and said, ‘I build dollhouses if you want one.’ The father got back to me the next morning.

“Between that Thursday morning and Saturday morning, I used a dollhouse, took a bedroom apart, and I went and Googled things about Ryan Hawk,” she said. “I had his picture on the wall, I had skis. I found out that he started at Smuggler’s, so I had a map of Smuggler’s Notch. Part of their fundraising included the Utah Film Festival, so I found an ad for that, reduced it on the computer, and put the tickets for that.”

Ryan’s father, who was impressed and immensely grateful for LaBerge’s work, called his daughter, Ryan’s sister, about the dollhouse. She has two young children who never had the opportunity to meet their uncle. She ended up purchasing the dollhouse and gifting it to them.

“Everyone’s got a story,” LaBerge said.

Know of an organization that could benefit from LaBerge’s dollhouse creations? Charities are welcome to contact her directly at linda2laberge@gmail.com.

SOURCE: Miranda Jonswold, Correspondent

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