Four-year-old Naim liked the painted cloud and sun on the roof and the words handwritten in gold inside the rooms: Explore. Dream. Discover.
His mother, Miyanna, wasn’t expecting to leave NCCF’s Bethesda campus with a beautiful wooden dollhouse that day—she could barely fit it in her car—but the family’s case manager, Sharon Nickelberry, asked if she wanted to take one home. Marriott International in Bethesda had donated 14 of them, all built by employees who’d volunteered their time, all decorated with special designs, inspirational quotes (“Shoot for the Stars!”) flowers, stickers and more. The dollhouses had just come off the delivery truck. Miyanna knew Naim and her three young daughters would love one, but Christmas was still two weeks away: He’d have to keep it a secret.
“I had to make him promise not to say anything,” says Miyanna, who was formerly homeless and is now part of NCCF’s Permanent Supportive Housing program. “Every day he’d be like, ‘Girls, girls, I got a surprise for you, but I can’t tell you!’”
You can tell us, they’d say. We’re your sisters.
“No, no,” he’d respond. “I made a promise.”
Naim helped his mom hide the dollhouse under a blanket at their apartment in D.C., and when the girls finally saw it on Christmas morning, they showered him with hugs and kisses. “See?” he said. “I told you I had a surprise!” His sisters started going through their toy bins to find their dolls and using cereal boxes to make furniture.
When Maia Brundred, manager of volunteerism at Marriott, reached out to NCCF before the holidays asking how the company could help, Executive Director Dr. Sheryl Brissett Chapman had an idea.
“What about dollhouses?” she said.
A month later, about 60 Marriott employees teamed up in small groups and started building. “They went full force,” Brundred says. “They wanted to make them as nice as possible and really be able to have these kids choose from something that piqued their interest.”
An expert in child and family welfare, Dr. Chapman says even as a young girl she saw the power of a dollhouse. Her parents couldn’t buy her one so she and her cousins used pieces of cardboard and plastic wrap to make their own. “I remember the pleasure I got out of building a nest,” she says. “Sometimes home can be challenging or painful, fraught with fights and unhappiness. So your ability as a child to build this nest becomes important for envisioning your future, for hoping and dreaming.”
Later, as a clinician, she quickly realized the therapeutic value of a dollhouse, too, how it could allow children to express themselves. A dollhouse was a place where you could put a mommy and daddy, and ask what happens at home. “I remember doing a two-way mirror and watching my staff work with little kids,” she explains. “I remember how the dollhouse helped children communicate their experience with their family, and also communicate what they wanted their experience to be like with their family.” One of her colleagues had a 5-year-old patient who didn’t say anything in therapy for several months. She always had her back to the therapist. “All the little girl would do is play with the dollhouse, but she wouldn’t talk,” Dr. Chapman says. “Then one day she turned around and said to the therapist, ‘You wanna play with me?’ She finally felt safe there. That was her space—and her dollhouse.”
Dr. Chapman got emotional when she saw what the Marriott team did for NCCF. “They built such wonderful dollhouses. They’re so well-made—children can pass these along for years,” she says. “The first three went to families that are living in supportive housing but are struggling to maintain it. These are families who could not afford a dollhouse. I hope Marriott understands how much healing there was in this.”
Sharon Nickelberry was teary-eyed when she saw Miyanna and Naim deciding which dollhouse they wanted. She was happy to be part of something that would “add a little bit more light” to their lives. The dollhouses were all lined up, and Nickelberry had a feeling she knew which one they’d pick. (She was right.) Miyanna was one of her first clients at NCCF—she knows her well. She knows how much trauma she’s endured. “I’ve watched her thrive and grow despite so many obstacles that would probably hinder someone else,” Nickelberry says. “She’s very resilient. She’s in school now—she’s trying to move forward.”
About a month after the holidays, Miyanna’s children are still using their dollhouse every day. She’s noticed them imitating her, saying things like, “You gotta clean your room” and “I’m cooking dinner, Mommy, my baby’s taking a nap.” And they’re using their imagination. “At one point they had a little doctor’s office on the top floor and a regular apartment at the bottom,” she says. Naim likes to put his race cars on the roof and watch them slide down and fall off, or fill all the rooms with his favorite toys. “Sometimes it’s not a dollhouse—it’s a dinosaur house.”
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