Santa may not know it, but he’s had a helper in Uehling for a long time.
Her name is Mona Cooper.
She’s not an elf, but she’s a small woman with a big smile and a gentle, yet enthusiastic disposition.
Earlier this week, Cooper, 88, and her friend, Shirley Strand, were carrying boxes of dolls into Fremont’s Thriftology Store (formerly known as Low Income Ministry’s clothing area).
Cooper had cleaned up and sewed new outfits for at least 34 gently used dolls, which she donated for children whose families may come to Thriftology looking for Christmas gifts.
Bright-eyed dolls with colorful clothing filled the brown cardboard boxes. One dark-haired doll wears a yellow and white outfit, while a set of twin dolls — a boy and a girl — are decked out in blue.
Cooper takes great care to make the dolls look new.
“These dolls are supposed to be from Santa Claus when the children get them,” Cooper said. “I want them to be perfect.”
Cooper began sprucing up dolls and sewing their clothes long before she and her husband, Alvin, moved to Uehling in 1990.
Altogether, Cooper estimates that she’s donated thousands of dolls for children at Christmas.
Cooper, who’s originally from England, met her husband at a dance there while he was in the U.S. Air Force. They hit it off, she said, and corresponded for several years.
In 1956, they married in his home town of North Platte and just celebrated their 63rd wedding anniversary.
Alvin served three branches of the military during a 26-year career. His service began in the U.S. Army Air Corps, which later became the U.S. Air Force. When the army formed an aviation unit, he transferred to the army from which he retired.
“I started sewing when my husband was in the military — he was gone so much — for something to do,” she said.
At first, Cooper didn’t have a sewing machine, so she sewed by hand. She got a sewing machine after she started working on the dolls.
Cooper’s entry into doll rejuvenation began years ago when she and her spouse lived about 3 miles from the army installation in Fort Rucker, Alabama.
“At Christmas time, they used to have one company that would go out to the surrounding towns and collect old toys and bring them to the base,” she said.
Dolls were included among those toys, which were repaired in an airplane hangar. There were many dolls.
“I used to go and say, ‘Can I have 12 dolls to dress?’ and take them home and make new clothes for them and clean them up,” she said.
Cooper would take back those dolls and ask for 10 more.
“That’s how I got started,” she said.
These days, Cooper buys dolls at thrift shops or people bring them to her.
She accepts what people bring. If she can make the dolls look new, she’ll work with them. If not, she’ll pass them on to someone else.
Cooper washes the dolls and trims their hair. She uses a toothbrush and even a toothpick to clean in small areas, like the dolls’ mouths.
She doesn’t use cheap fabric to make the outfits. And she doesn’t buy material in bulk — just a half of a yard here or there depending on the size of the doll — because she wants all the dolls to look different.
“I don’t have patterns,” she added. “I use a paper towel. I cut it up to make the bodice and I fit it to the doll so it’s the right size and take it from there. All of the clothes are what I’ve made.”
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She’s made cloth dolls with embroidered faces in the past as well.
When she and Alvin first moved to Fremont, she didn’t know where to take the dolls. She put some under gift trees in local businesses.
For years, she then took dolls to the Open Door Mission in Omaha.
“They were always happy to get them,” she said.
Then she heard about the Low Income Ministry of Dodge County and decided it would be easier to take dolls there.
She’s been bringing dolls there for about a decade.
More recently, LIM has become part of LifeHouse, which serves the public in various ways.
Cooper enjoys bringing the dolls.
“It’s something I can do,” she said. “I feel like everybody can do something and I can make doll clothes.”
Thriftology Store Manager Barb Flores appreciates the donation.
“It’s so nice to be able to see the joy of the kids’ faces when you’re able to give them a doll that you know has had a lot of heartfelt time put into it,” Flores said. “The smiles on their faces is gratifying.”
And it’s wonderful, when some families ask about the cost, to be able to say that they may have a doll for free.
Cooper doesn’t see the recipients.
“I never get to see the children receive the dolls, but that’s not important as long as I know they’re getting the dolls. It’s been a labor of love,” she said.
Cooper also said if she gave away 10 dolls and only one child liked them — then that would be the child for whom she made the dolls.
“I can’t worry about all of them, although I try to make all them the best I can,” she said, adding, “I’m my own worst critic. They’ve got to be perfect when I get done.”
To help fund her hobby, Cooper has embarked on projects like making clothes for porcelain dolls, which she sells.
“The money always go back into the dolls that I bring here, or I give away a lot of dolls, too,” she said.
Strand, who is from Hooper, also said she had a wedding dress, which both she and one of her daughters wore when they married. Strand had Cooper turn fabric from that dress into small wedding gowns for three bride dolls that went to the Hooper woman’s daughters.
She appreciates Cooper’s doll rejuvenation endeavors.
“It takes patience to that,” Strand said.
Cooper spends all year long working on the dolls and while she once would donate 40 dolls at a time, she’s doing fewer now that she’s the caregiver for her husband, who’s 94.
She plans to continue transforming the dolls into just-like-new toys — until doing so just isn’t fun anymore.
“When it starts to be work, then I’ll stop,” she said. “Right now, it’s still fun. I can’t wait to get a doll finished once I start one.
“Because I do them all differently, I never know how it’s going to look,” she said. “I’ve never wanted to do the dolls like a cookie-cutter style, where they’re all the same. I want them to be different so I’m surprised, not just the child who’s getting it.”
And that’s probably just the way Santa would want it, too.