After spending much of their lives working and raising their families, Lynn Zwerling and Gayle Young, best friends and Wilde Lake residents, began wondering what kind of legacy they'd leave behind.
"We started thinking about immortality, what we would be remembered as when we were no longer alive," Zwerling, 55, said. The list wasn't too exciting. "Made a hell of a lasagna, never missed a soccer game. So we decided to do something."
And thus began the Hope Doll Project, a nonprofit organization that markets doll lapel pins made by homeless women in a Baltimore shelter. Fashioned out of miniature clothespins and festooned with bits of fabric, yarn and beads, the dolls are individually made by the women during weekly workshops sponsored by the organization.
The Hope Doll Project was born 18 months ago in an arts and crafts project that Zwerling helped run at one of the city's shelters. Impressed by the self-esteem boost that the pin-making gave homeless women, the pair decided to expand the project by marketing the pins and returning the proceeds to the pin-makers.
The idea was a perfect fit for the two friends, longtime businesswomen who had been involved in women's issues in Columbia over the years.
"It was a natural for us to go back to our roots and give back to women," Zwerling said.
In Columbia this year, the women sold the pins, which retail for at least $8, at the Capital Jazz Festival and at the recent Lilith Fair, where 100 were snatched up by concertgoers. The pins also are for sale at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore and at stores in Baltimore and Columbia.
Looking for a way to meet the growing demand for the pins, Zwerling and Young moved the project in March to My Sister's Place, a day shelter for homeless women in downtown Baltimore, for a three-month series of workshops.
"Women just want to have one of our dolls," Young, 55, said. "All of a sudden we were getting a need for more dolls than this one shelter could produce."
During the 90-minute workshops, Zwerling and Young demonstrated the basics of making the dolls and then watched as each homeless woman slowly moved from reluctance to excitement while creating one. It soon became apparent to the pair that the project was producing more than the pins.
Creating the dolls gave the homeless women a boost of badly needed self-esteem, especially when they saw that someone placed a value on something they had made, said Ca Sandra Winchester, program director at My Sister's Place.
"The women loved it so much. They had an opportunity to be as creative as they wanted to be and needed to be," she said. "Society being society, the homeless are shunned. They're not exactly valued as human beings, so that cuts down on their self-worth."
Winchester said the workshops also helped the women, who ranged in age from their mid-twenties to early forties, to bond as they sat around a table working on the dolls.
"Not to romanticize things," she said, "but a lot of issues were worked out over these pins."
Zwerling and Young, who sell the pins wholesale for $6, paid the shelters $3 for each pin. They spent the rest of the money on materials, some of which were donated by local businesses.
The shelter in turn paid the homeless women $2 for each pin they made. The remaining $1 was spent on pizza parties, get-togethers and items given to women when they leave the shelter, Winchester said.
Zwerling and Young, who are on hiatus for the summer, hope to hold workshops this fall at the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center in Columbia. Meanwhile, the pair continues to solicit volunteers to help with the workshops and donors to provide financial backing for expansion. The Hope Doll Project is a partner in the Columbia-based charity, Community at the Crossroads.
Zwerling and Young hope the project eventually will grow big enough that it can employ some of the homeless women and provide them with a new start.
"We see it as more than just a pin," Zwerling said. "We see it as a growing industry where the women can take it on for themselves."
Donations for the Hope Doll Project can be sent to the Hope Doll Project, 10163 Pasture Gate Lane, Columbia, Md. 21044. For more information, call Zwerling at 410-997-3965 or Young at 301-596-6157.