OVIEDO, Fla. — A tour of one of the dollhouses meticulously handcrafted by Dawn Franze gives even the most scrupulously staged Zillow home listing a run for its money.
When you turn on the working overhead light, you’ll see breakfast served on the table and a cake in the oven. There’s a wreath over the fireplace and an itty-bitty rubber ducky in the shower.
Franze, of Oviedo, started renovating dollhouses as a pandemic project. The work clicked with her “mechanically-inclined” side. But it soon took on a life — and mission — of its own.
Every year since, around the holiday season, she handcrafts personalized dollhouses as gifts to girls who have experienced or are facing trauma.
“My hope is that these girls use these houses to cope in their current situations, to heal from prior traumas, and imagine what their future can look like and be,” Franze said.
Having experienced trauma as a child, Franze said she learned the value of imaginative play as a coping mechanism. She said through playing with the dollhouses, the children can create safety to lower trauma triggers.
They can also create an imaginative life that they want to live. “That creates a vision, and a vision can be realized,” she said.
Also, if they’re playing with other children, it reinforces their executive thinking, teaching them how to be leaders.
Franze said as a little girl, when she and her sister would play with Barbies, her sister was always setting scenes waiting for Ken to pick her up on a date. But in Franze’s world, Ken was her secretary as she ran off to business meetings.
Neither imaginary world is better than the other, but Franze said it shows the power of your imagination, and how you can use it to envision and enact the life you want to live.
“It’s empowering,” she said. “You can be whatever you want to be.”
This means today, Franze can run business meetings one minute, and the next see acorns on the ground and decide to figure out how to turn them into bowls for her dollhouse kitchens.
Franze spares no detail in her houses, each one personalized for the girl who will receive it.
On the walls are postage-stamp-sized photos of the girl and her family. Hanging off the corner of a four-poster bed is a backpack monogrammed with the girl’s name.
If you look even closer, there’s more. She said she’ll tuck words of affirmation under the furniture and behind the picture frames for the girls to discover.
“I think we all look for our purpose in life,” Franze said. “And I’m not unique to have experienced trauma myself, but it’s what we do with that. And being able to marry those two, purpose and trauma, in a positive way is ongoing healing for me as well. It’s as much for me as it is for them.”
The project, which she calls JOLI Hope Houses, started with just her working out-of-pocket, buying shabby houses, rehabbing them and learning to build pieces; but last year, someone offered to donate a house, and then another and another. She’s crafted and donated 13 houses so far.
“This is not just me. It’s me and there is a community behind me that makes this happen and for them, I am very grateful,” Franze said.
Franze said she rarely gets to meet the children who receive the houses, but she was able to be there as one 9-year-old girl received her dollhouse from Santa. It’s a moment she’ll never forget.
“She was so surprised that Santa knew her well enough to know who her family is,” Franze said. “There were pictures of her in the house and she just couldn’t believe that Santa knew all those things about her. And that was pretty magical.”
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