RUSK’S DOLL COLLECTION: VOCATIONAL
REHABILITATION WITH A HUMAN TOUCH
Kathleen O’Rourke, Rusk Administrative Intern
The Vocational Rehabilitation Department at Rusk has pioneered innovative
services and programs to help individuals with disabilities find employment
in the workplace or return to school. Our counselors work with clients across
a range of disabilities—functional, psychological, developmental, cognitive
and emotional—to develop personalized plans aimed at developing the skills
needed to thrive in a professional or academic environment with pride.
John Walters (named changed for anonymity) struggles with post-traumatic
stress disorder (PTSD) and generalized long-term anxiety. While a client in the
Vocational Rehab Department, John undertook an exciting volunteer project to
help him learn to engage in meaningful work despite his difficulties. The project
is not only a splendid example of the productivity, love and humanity that is the
hallmark of the Vocational Rehab Program, but also provides insight into the
Rusk’s creative and storied history. John shared his experience with us during
a recent interview.
How were you connected to the Rusk Vocational Rehabilitation Program?
I was first referred to the program through the State Education
Department’s local Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals
with Disabilities (VESID) office. I worked with a vocational specialist at
Rusk to complete an initial Diagnostic Vocational Evaluation (DVE) to
assess my interests and skills and to create a personalized employment
plan. The goals I set focus on developing workplace skills through
volunteer experience and counseling.
What does your project with the Vocational Rehab Program involve?
Rusk has a collection of nearly 400 dolls which have been donated by
patients, families, friends, colleagues and ambassadors over the past
85 years. I am helping to organize, document, store and display these
dolls to preserve them as Rusk embarks on its upcoming physical
transformation—moving from the building at 400 East 34th Street to
multiple locations throughout the medical center. The goal is to give the
dolls a clean, clear, comfortable, well-lighted space—a home, where their
wonderful history can be preserved.
What is the history of the collection in the Doll Room at Rusk?
The collection began when Dr. Howard Rusk received one or two dolls
from India. They were given to him by residents who returned to Rusk
after spending the holidays in their native countries. Dr. Rusk thought
Rusk Rehabilitation | “The Whole Story” | Spring 2012 | Page Two
the dolls could be used in pediatric rehabilitation. So began a tradition
of residents bringing dolls from their native countries to be used in
Are there any dolls that are particularly interesting or distinguishable?
Each doll has a unique origin and represents a different nation and time
period. Germany is well-known for its doll-making, so the dolls from this
region first caught my eye. While my personal favorite is a hand-painted
female doll from Hungary, the one I always show people is a female doll
from Africa with a beautiful face and very vibrant dress.
There are also many embassy dolls in the collection. Because of
Rusk’s proximity to the United Nations, many foreign diplomats have sent
their children here for rehabilitation and have given dolls to the collection.
The mother of the Dalai Lama donated male and female dolls from Tibet.
The most meaningful doll in the collection, however, may be the doll
that was handmade for a patient during their time at Rusk. We don’t know
who exactly made the doll, but it was an individual—a family member,
nurse or therapist—who was involved with a patient’s rehabilitation. The
doll is an act of love.
You had a former career related to dolls and toys. How has your time
working with the doll collection at Rusk added to your experience?
I’ve particularly enjoyed the international breadth of the dolls. They are
not just Americana; there are dolls from all over the world including
Africa, pre-revolutionary Russia, France, Korea, Japan, Iran and India.
My imagination takes over when looking at and working with them: I can
imagine a patient lying in bed, thinking about traveling to the doll’s native
country or wearing the different clothes the doll is wearing. I can see the
patient’s face light up as they imagine the doll’s story.
Working with the collection has also confirmed that art pieces such as
these dolls are objects of love. They have the power to heal.
In what way can dolls heal?
Dolls are human likenesses, and people can use them to communicate
their feelings, emotions and ideas. They are a way in which patients
can dream, imagine and travel. They help patients get excited about a
productive and fulfilling life ahead of them.
How has your experience at Rusk and with this project inspired you?
I will definitely continue with rehab-focused therapy. The staff at Rusk
has shown that rehabilitation can extend beyond a clinical focus.
There is a human element I wasn’t expecting. From secretaries to case
workers, everyone is friendly, fun, and has a sense of humor. I am very
grateful for the opportunity and resulting experience. Rusk is a family
that has a connection filled with love, care and passion. I hope that my
contributions to storing and preserving the doll collection will enable
others to experience the human element of Rusk Rehabilitation and the
joys of interacting with dolls.
We would like to thank John for sharing his experience with us. It
is inspirational to hear how Rusk’s Vocational Rehabilitation Program
not only helps shape productive lives, but also touches the hearts of
To learn more about Rusk’s Vocational Rehabilitation Program, please visit the website at
http://rusk.med.nyu.edu/vocational-rehabilitation or call (212) 263-6033.