- Associated Press - Saturday, September 10, 2016

GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) - She called it her Olympic gymnastics doll, named her Vanessa Melissa and had her doing cartwheels within moments of getting her.

The doll, clad in a red and white USA top and blue pants with stars, was a big hit with CatLynn Poe, an 8-year-old patient at Shriner’s Hospital for Children in Greenville who suffers from cerebral palsy.

“She was just so excited about it,” her mom, Erika Poe, told The Greenville News. “It made me feel wonderful that someone took the time to do something like that for her. I was almost in tears.”

That someone is Pat Blackburn of Greenville, a retired nurse practitioner who uses her time and talents to make clothes for the dolls that she gives to the children.

Each 18-inch doll comes with 10 or 12 complete wardrobe changes including dresses, play outfits, jeans, tops, and a night gown and robe, Blackburn said.

And so far, she’s provided a doll and clothes to about 30 Shriners patients.

“Her work to me is a labor of love,” said Elaine Hardin, a child life specialist at the hospital, which offers specialty orthopedic care to children regardless of ability to pay.

“The outfits she makes are like what your grandmother would make for you just because she loves you,” she said. “It’s just amazing what all she creates.”

‘She could make anything’

Sewing has been a lifelong passion for Blackburn, who began fashioning doll clothes for her three granddaughters. And when she retired 10 years ago, she expanded to providing dolls and clothes to children at two area schools for Christmas.

But during a tour of Shriners three years ago, she asked whether the patients would enjoy getting them, and the answer was a resounding yes. Now she spends three or four hours a day at her sewing machine making the clothes.

Recent dolls came with Olympic-themed styles, Hardin said, and reversible vests. But they’ve come in Halloween costumes and Christmas finery as well. And they arrive in backpacks that Blackburn has made to carry them.

“I feel like she could just make anything,” Hardin said. “Sometimes we will give patients a choice between an American Girl doll and one of Pat’s dolls, and it’s not even a contest.”

The clothes are professional quality with fine details like lace on the panties and a red Levis label on the jeans.

“If you do something long enough and keep at it, you get good at it,” Blackburn said. “No matter what it is.”

In addition to sewing the clothes, Blackburn, 73, buys the fabric as well as the dolls and the patterns.

“I take my 40-percent off coupon and go to A.C. Moore and buy the dolls,” she said with a chuckle. “Little girls don’t care if it’s a $100 American Girl doll or one from A.C. Moore.”

A new friend

Except for a few of the pieces that she knits, all the clothes are made of 100 percent cotton fabrics that Blackburn finds at Viking Sew ‘n Quilt, where she works part-time.

The dolls offer a distraction to children who’ve undergone surgery or another painful procedure, helping to take their minds off their conditions and serving as an outlet for their feelings.

“They sometimes tell their doll things they won’t tell us,” Hardin said. “And sometimes they will talk to them about the surgery or show them their cast or bandage. They’re like a friend to them while they’re in the hospital.”

Whenever a new box of dolls and clothes arrives, the staff always shows up to see what kind of creations she’s made this time, Hardin said.

“They’re not only fun for the children, they’re fun for staff too,” she said. “It brings out the little girl in all of us.”

Though the work is time-consuming and selfless, Blackburn doesn’t make a big deal about it, Hardin said.

“There are people who do things and want attention for doing it,” she said. “Miss Pat is not like that at all.”

A Massachusetts transplant, Blackburn says she gets as much out of it as she gives.

“People can’t change the world, but you can always do something you love to do and change a little corner of it,” she said. “It makes you feel good.”

‘A special thing’

Blackburn said she only played with paper dolls as child because her family couldn’t afford anything else. But she had a cousin with a doll that had lots of clothes, and that stuck with her throughout her life.

“I always thought that little girls who had that sort of thing, it was a special thing,” she said, adding that the greatest compliment would be if the children pass the dolls on to their own daughters.

A quadriplegic from brain damage due to a lack of oxygen at birth, CatLynn has good function of her left hand, her mom said.

And the gift of the doll came at the perfect time because they just learned that the little girl is facing another surgery in the next few months.

CatLynn was the first child Blackburn has ever witnessed getting her doll. And she watched with delight as the little girl played with her doll, even playing with her and helping her change the outfits.

“With Pat being there and taking the time to change outfits with my daughter and explain how she designed them and how much fun it was for her, she loved doing that,” Erika Poe said.

“One outfit had a little apron to go with it and they all had tennis shoes and dress shoes to go with the outfits. Even Crocs. I told her the little jeans outfit look better than the things I buy in the store,” she added.

“CatLynn just loved it. It made her feel special.”

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