A doll’s headless body rests on Erica Sheer’s craft table in her Kansas City, North, home. The soft, plump yarn legs echo the color of a newborn chick; a torso is starting to take shape.
“I’m making the doll for Nella,” said Sheer, 34, as she pointed to the crocheted yellow legs. “It will have a pink bow, just like hers.”
Nearby, pinned on a small easel, is a picture of 16-month-old Nella with a frilly pink hair bow and sweet smile. She has spinal muscle atrophy Type 1, a hereditary disease that causes weakness and wasting of voluntary muscles in infants’ and children’s arms and legs. The majority of babies with SMA Type 1 die within the first two years of respiratory failure.
Sheer is an enthusiastic and empathetic member of the Feel Better Friends crafters corps.
Started by Olathe resident Shanon Fouquet nine months ago, Feel Better Friends has gathered more than 300 crafting volunteers like Sheer in 13 countries, including the U.S., Canada, and the Netherlands. More than 250 custom handmade dolls have been made, with 100 more in production. Each volunteer receives a pattern, compliments of Fouquet, and then donates time, materials and shipping costs to complete a doll.
Children battling cancer and other illnesses, like Nella, snuggle their mini-me doll during doctor’s appointments, chemo treatments and hospital stays.
Like many who dedicate hours to creating dolls for children they’ll never meet, Sheer stumbled across the nonprofit organization on Facebook.
“I saw it on a crochet group page,” she said.
Feel Better Friends’ simple mission resonates with Sheer.
“There’s nothing more frightening than having a sick child, and this is something I can do to help lessen the burden, offering comfort to a stranger,” she said.
Although Sheer has never met Nella, she feels a strong emotional connection.
“I followed her Facebook page for nine months and didn’t realize until I received the doll request from Fouquet that Nella is my dentist’s daughter,” Sheer said. “I pray for her while I crochet.”
For Shanon Fouquet, life’s journey is hard. And joyful.
Meniere’s disease — an inner ear disorder that causes spontaneous episodes of vertigo and along with it, bouts of fluctuating hearing loss and a maddening ringing in the ears — prevented Fouquet, 36, from pursuing a career she loved and many activities she took for granted.
Diagnosed with the chronic, incurable disease in 2001, Fouquet didn’t know when the vertigo would collapse her or when an incapacitating headache would require bed rest.
Gradually the Meniere’s symptoms became intolerable and in May 2011, Fouquet was forced to abandon her job as a graphic designer for a specialties company.
Several months later she lost what most adults cherish as their biggest symbol of independence: the ability to drive.
Plunging into a deep depression, Fouquet spent months contemplating her identity and purpose. The Topeka native thrived on art and painting, and surrounded herself with texture and exuberant color. She felt the beauty drain from her world. But it was during the painfully introspective year that Fouquet found joy again.
After a friend introduced her to crocheting, Fouquet made a scarf using self-taught basic stitches. More scarves followed, and the artist felt the inner creative voice that Meniere’s disease temporarily silenced stirring again.
Fouquet launched an online business in 2013, Shanonigans, and shared on Facebook and Etsy projects such as retro granny square patches to revive torn jeans destined for the trash; funky rainbow-hued hats fashioned with earflaps; and red-and-gold Chiefs beanies.
People clamored for her creations, appreciating Fouquet’s detailed craftsmanship.
Curious by nature, Fouquet then discovered a passion for yarn and buttons and amigurumi, the Japanese art of crocheting small stuffed dolls and animals, whose prevailing aesthetic is best described as achingly cute.
One day, a crocheted character named Katrina the Foxy Ballerina was born — a whimsical animal Fouquet designed with a bushy, white-tipped tail, puffy pink tutu and cotton-candy-pink ballet slippers.
Fouquet snapped a picture of Katrina striking different poses such as balancing against a teeny ballet barre, pirouette-style, and put them on her website, shanonigans.com.
Accompanying Foxy’s photos was Katrina’s story, which Fouquet imagined and just happened to have a poignant connection to her own reawakening.
“Ever since stepping out of her dark and tiny den,” wrote Fouquet, “Katrina has found a way to stretch her legs and express herself. Although she’s quite good at most styles of dance (a natural in the foxtrot), her favorite moves happen in the ballet studio. She loves the momentum she gets up on her toes …”
Fouquet started building a base of people eager for her work, including someone who wanted to give to a new grandnephew a crocheted toy train to match an applique on a lemon-yellow romper (a onesie).
“That one was a challenge, which I welcome,” Fouquet said. “I made the train, and it looked exactly like the rompers, down to the brown-rimmed wheels.”
Mr. Dragon, a cuddly blue, purple and green animal with scales on its back, emerged along with floppy hats adorned with gold, pink, purple and yellow roses for two sisters, and Monte the Colorful Monkey.
In January 2014, Fouquet introduced her first crochet pattern, Little Striped Owl, a 4-inch-tall amigurumi figure. She had found a rhythm and more definition to her purpose.
“I was inspired and moving forward,” Fouquet remarked recently, dressed in jeans with the granny patches on the knees, sitting cross-legged on a chair in her studio.
The space reflects her personality and affinity for the bright and unexpected, and is saturated with color, from paintings by Fouquet hanging on the walls to baskets spilling over with skeins of yarn and a striped curtain hiding a storage area bulging with supplies.
Fouquet and her husband, Jeff, 38, an advanced placement English teacher at Olathe Northwest High School, moved into the house in March. The couple transformed one of two back bedrooms into a private workspace where she could design and create unabated.
Jeff Fouquet, studying for his doctorate and writing his dissertation, set up an office in the living room of the small house they share with foster son Devin and Rowdy and Maya, two rambunctious rescue dogs.
In April 2014 Fouquet revealed a new Shanonigans creation to her followers: Mini, a custom crocheted doll with blue eyes, dimples, and stylish black glasses mimicking her human counterpart — Fouquet.
The mini-me was another piece to Fouquet’s joy quotient, but there was still something missing from the equation.
“Giving back to my community was important, and there were so many things I could do, like crochet blankets for the needy or hats for cancer patients,” Fouquet said. “All worthwhile, but none of those options spoke to me.”
While Fouquet learned new techniques and broadened her crochet and amigurumi skills, she followed a Facebook support page called Berkeley’s Battle. The little girl caught Fouquet’s attention not only because of the cancer she was fighting, but also because she lived in Topeka, her hometown.
“I didn’t know Berkeley or her family personally,” explained Fouquet. “I followed her journey, and along with hundreds of others offered support though kind words and prayers.”
One day Berkeley’s family posted a picture of the petite child, skinny and bald from cancer treatments, hugging an American Girl doll with flowing auburn locks and a matching dress.
“Her parents shared that Berkeley decided to go wigless and was twinning with her American Girl doll,” Fouquet said. “It occurred to me at that moment: Wouldn’t it be cool if this brave, adorable little girl could really twin with her doll and they could both be wigless?”
Much like Foxy, the Ballerina was conceived to express Fouquet’s upward path from darkness to the light. She envisioned a mission of giving kids going through cancer and other illnesses the comfort and hope of a doll.
“I appreciated what I could learn from Berkeley and these other kiddos — about being strong when life gets hard,” she said.
The first Feel Better Friends doll was made for Berkeley — complete with a removable wig, gray leggings and pink cowboy boots, the little girl’s signature footwear fashion statement. Fouquet designed the doll by poring over pictures posted on Berkeley’s support page.
“I’d never made a wig, but I had to try,” said Fouquet, who also made identical hats for Berkeley and the doll.
The handcrafted dolls are meticulously made with the recipient’s likeness in mind — corresponding hair color and eyes, facial features, a child’s favorite outfit.
“People put their heart and soul into these dolls, which can take on average 10 to 15 hours to crochet,” Fouquet said. “They are all very personal, and the volunteers get so much back, knowing the dolls go to kids trying to overcome giant obstacles.”
Fouquet delivered sample dolls and brochures to Amanda Woelk, a certified child life specialist at Children’s Mercy Hospital, in December.
“Particularly for our oncology patients, dolls such as Feel Better Friends help normalize their illness,” Woelk said. “Especially the ones Shanon’s volunteers create with removable wigs — kids have control over taking the hair on and off. When you lose your hair during chemo, that’s important.”
Woelk distributed the dolls to patients and left brochures explaining them in the parents’ room.
“The dolls help parents, too, through a tough time,” she says. “It gives everyone another way to look at a child’s illness.”
Leslie Moyer of Independence spied the Feel Better Friends brochures while taking a break in the Children’s Mercy parents’ lounge in December. Her 12-year-old daughter, Justice, diagnosed with anaplastic large cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma after Thanksgiving, was receiving a round of chemo.
“One of the biggest fears Justice has is hair loss,” Moyer said last week, days after bringing the sixth-grader home following another hospital stay. “I read about the dolls and thought that was just what she needed to help her.”
Justice adores fashion, wears big hair bows, and is fond of sketching patterns on her laptop.
“I contacted Shanon and requested a custom doll with a removable wig to help Justice recognize that having no hair doesn’t change you,” Moyer said. “As a parent, you never imagine yourself here, with this situation, but you deal with it, fight it and pray. And this Feel Better Friends doll is part of dealing with it in a positive way.”
Feel Better Friends volunteer crafter Kathy Lewis of Jacksonville, Fla., was assigned to make Justice’s doll and shipped it to Independence last week.
“What a wonderful thing to discover that night at Children’s Mercy,” Moyer said. “I was exhausted and anxious, and then found this opportunity. That’s how life works. Good and bad, things happen when you least expect it.”
Missy Woodruff, 38, sits on the floor of her Olathe home with 9-month-old son Jack, who gurgles and chuckles, clutching a Feel Better Friends doll decked out in Jayhawk red and blue.
Born March 7, Jack spent 14 days in the neonatal intensive care unit at Overland Park Regional Medical Center following Woodruff’s emergency C-section. In August he came down with enterovirus and was admitted to Children’s Mercy Hospital with breathing problems. Jack was readmitted to the hospital on Sept. 2 with labored breathing — at which time Woodruff and her husband, Randy, 47, demanded more tests.
“He just wasn’t recovering,” she said.
Physicians discovered an artery wrapped around one of Jack’s main airways — a rare condition known as a pulmonary artery sling.
“Basically, Jack couldn’t cough like other kids,” Woodruff said.
The Woodruffs received a surprise package in late August containing Jack’s personalized Feel Better Friends doll.
“My stepsister in Topeka, Jessica Henderson, read about Feel Better Friends and requested the doll,” she said. “We are huge KU fans, and this precious doll with blue eyes and a tousle of wild hair like Jack’s was in a box with a touching note from its creator.”
The Jack look-alike doll — with blue sneakers and a football — became an inseparable buddy, going to the hospital on Sept. 2 and subsequent open-heart surgery on Nov. 10.
“Jack’s eyes light up when he sees the doll and he loves to pull on its hair,” she said. “Funny thing, the doll made Randy and me feel good, too, to see how happy it made Jack. It’s become his only friend since we had to keep him secluded following surgery to avoid germs and potential infections.”
Woodruff says Feel Better Friends is a powerful program offering both children and parents solace.
“Not only are these dolls beautifully crocheted,” she said as she picked up Jack’s Feel Better Friends companion, “but they are made with love. See?”
She holds up the doll, its legs dangling within reach of Jack’s chubby hands.
As Feel Better Friends has grown in popularity — sparking the interest of volunteers and people submitting doll requests — Fouquet must monitor her stress level, which can trigger a Meniere’s incident, leaving her debilitated for hours or even days.
To reduce workload, she hired Jenna Lindberg, 30, of Kansas City, Kan., to assist with office and administrative work.
“Shanon is godmother to my sister Bailey’s child,” Lindberg said, who works full-time in her own insurance agency and operates a cake-decorating business on the side. “She followed the development of Feel Better Friends on Facebook and told me of challenges, such as Shanon getting dizzy doing computer work and straining to read spreadsheets.”
Lindberg reached out to Fouquet and the two clicked. Each Wednesday Lindberg camps out in Fouquet’s studio, answering email, returning phone calls, matching requests to crafters, identifying potential donors for yarn and other materials. She helped Fouquet successfully apply for 501(c)(3) status.
“The community that has sprung up around Feel Better Friends is amazing,” she said, “with volunteers striving to truly customize each doll.”
Lindberg doesn’t crochet but contributes to helping the business run smoothly, maneuvering it through inevitable growing spurts.
“Feel Better Friends’ future is positive, as long as we keep finding volunteers to make dolls,” she said. “And donors to give materials and help with shipping.”
Each crafter is responsible for shipping the completed doll to the recipient. In the first seven months of operation, Feel Better Friends’ volunteers spent more than $1,500 in shipping, in addition to buying yarn and other supplies.
“People are happy to purchase materials, but it would be incredible to have donor vendors,” Lindberg said.
Jeff Fouquet is readying lesson plans in his makeshift home office for students and checking dissertation notes. Swiveling around in his chair, he talks about living with a partner who has Meniere’s disease.
“I felt helpless trying to figure it out,” Jeff Fouquet said. “We went to the Mayo Clinic. Shanon had a spinal tap after which they thought it might be multiple sclerosis. I was even writing to mystery diagnosis shows with the question, ‘How do you fix my wife?’”
Jeff Fouquet is emotional as he describes the Meniere’s episodes, which often occur without warning.
“One time we were grocery shopping, and I stayed in the car to take a phone call when Shanon had a drop attack in the store, where she literally just falls to the ground,” he said. “Somehow she made it back to the car. I told her, you’re never going to have to do this by yourself.’ ”
Jeff Fouquet grew up in two foster homes in Atchison and Effingham, Kan., from age 15 until 17, when his maternal grandparents in Ness City, Kan., took him in.
“Shanon reminds me of my grandma — a heart of gold,” he said. “When the Feel Better Friends idea started to germinate, to be honest, my feelings were mixed. She started running with it, spending hours organizing, not remembering her disability and consequences from overworking.”
The Fouquets’ heart-to-heart discussions reminded Shanon Fouquet that, although the idea was honorable, it could make her sick, too.
“I’m so proud of her,” Jeff Fouquet said. “More than any other project Shanon has endeavored, she has been proactive at finding balance with this, like outsourcing computer and office work with Jenna.”
He quietly admits that the husband in him must be vigilant about Shanon’s health.
“But without a doubt, Feel Better Friends has brought Shanon back to life. It gives her joy. She has meaning. That’s priceless.”
Sayings clipped with clothespins to brightly colored ribbon hang above Erica Sheer’s neatly arranged worktable. “Keep calm and carry yarn.” “Pray more, worry less.” “Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.” “Hope, Psalm 39:7.”
Sheer hails from a long line of crafters, including her great-grandmother, grandmother and mother. She learned how to crochet from a YouTube demonstration five years ago.
Sheer and her husband, Jordan, have firsthand experience with the terror of parenting a sick child. Their son, Sutter, spent 23 days in the neonatal intensive care unit at St. Luke’s Hospital following birth. They kept vigil over the baby, praying for his health.
Sutter is now an active 31/2-year-old who rides his toy car and watches the Feel Better Friends dolls his mother makes take shape.
“One of the first dolls I crocheted was for 18-month-old Bryson, who had green hearing aids and loved his blue Crocs,” recalled Sheer, pulling out an album and flipping to a page with a picture of Bryson clutching his Feel Better Friends doll.
A therapist who worked with Bryson knew about Fouquet’s organization and requested a doll.
After studying photos she received of Bryson, Sheer duplicated, in miniature, the hearing aids and blue shoes.
“I’m touched by each child’s story,” she said softly, turning the page to a picture showing a youngster sporting a blue Mohawk wearing a superhero cape.
Sheer crocheted a doll for Ryder, copying the cape and hairstyle. Diagnosed with neutropenia, Ryder has a disease that leaves him vulnerable to fighting off infections.
“They call him Super Ryder because of the cape,” she says. “I understand he takes his Feel Better Friends doll with him to the doctor.”
Sutter, fond of the Super Ryder doll, announced he was sick and needed one of his own as Sheer applied finishing touches to prepare it for shipping.
“Make me a Superman Ryder,” he requested.
And Sheer’s hairdresser put in a doll request for a little boy about Ryder’s age with cancer who had big dimples and wore cowboy boots — something Sutter wears, too.
“As I was making the doll, I kept thinking about Sutter,” Sheer said, her eyes misting.
The passionate crafter quotes a verse from the Bible: 1 Peter 4:10.
“Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms,” Sheer said, picking up the in-progress yellow-legged doll destined for Nella.
“I send so many prayers up to God while I make Feel Better Friends dolls.”
About the project
For more information on becoming a volunteer or to submit a request for a Feel Better Friends doll, visit www.fbfdolls.org.