Meet the 14-Year-Old Girl Spreading Hope and Joy Through Restored American Girl Dolls

Leah Barcus’ Joy Doll Hospital recently delivered 30 dolls to children in Ukraine.

Leah Barcus Joy Doll Hospital
Photo: Joy Doll Hospital

She's only 14-years-old, but Leah Barcus knows a thing or two about spreading joy.

The teenager from Fredericksburg, Virginia, remembers saving up for her first American Girl doll. She bought it second-hand, and when it arrived, one of its limbs was loose.

"I didn't want to part with her or take a chance by sending her through the mail," Barcus recalls. "So, I started researching how to repair her myself. But, to fix a doll, you first have to completely take it apart. I was not willing to take my doll apart!"

Though unwilling to repair her own American Girl doll, the idea stirred something in Barcus. With the help of a friend, she began to practice the art of repairing and restoring the prized collectables. Before long, people were referring to her house as "the doll hospital."

Fast forward to the summer of 2019. Barcus was serving with a theater ministry when she came face-to-face with the heart-breaking reality that not all children have homes.

"I guess in my mind, orphanages and children's homes were in stories, or in the past," Barcus explains. "The thought of kids my age being alone and completely separated from their families was hard for me to imagine. When I am lonely or worried about something, I have my family. They love me and I can trust them. The kids in those places may not have that. I knew what my doll was for me. I knew that with my doll, I had a friend, a companion, and someone to talk to. I wondered what it could mean for kids in a children's home or somewhere going through bad times to have a doll too."

So she got to work.

Leah's rainbow from brokenness to joy
Benjamin Monroe

Barcus started Joy Doll Hospital with the mission of gifting restored dolls to kids in need through children's homes and various youth crisis intervention organizations. It was an expensive undertaking. When she first started, Barcus would find dolls, then ask for sponsors to help fund the restorations. Despite those hurdles, by the end of 2019, she had gifted 35 dolls to children's homes in both North Carolina and Virginia.

In summer 2020, a military veteran who Barcus describes as "all too familiar with the effects of crises," offered their time and expertise to turn Joy Doll Hospital into a 501c3 nonprofit. Shortly after, Barcus held her first doll drive. That year, she restored and donated a total 55 dolls throughout South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia. In 2021, Barcus gifted an additional 45 dolls.

"Each doll has a story—just like them," Barcus says. "No matter how the doll came into the hospital, with love and the sacrifice of people's time and resources, it can be restored and made into something new and beautiful."

In 2022, she expanded her efforts to include Ukrainian children experiencing the crisis of war. Last month, 30 Joy Dolls were carried in suitcases by courier from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to Budapest, Hungary, then driven to a remote camp in Slovakia, where they were presented to Ukrainian refugees.

Joy Doll Hospital Ukraine
Joy Doll Hospital

"We give a message of hope with every doll," Barcus says. "Our love and care restores the Joy Dolls, but God's love is what can restore them and give that special hope in their personal story."

Barcus is the youngest official member of the International Doll Doctors Association. She says that it surprises people to learn that she still hasn't repaired her original American Girl doll.

"She's not perfect, but you don't stop loving something because it's not perfect, and I feel like it's a part of her story now. And mine," she says.

You can contribute to the Joy Doll Hospital by donating 18" American Girl dolls in any condition, as well as, new, hand-made, or gently used 18" doll clothing, wigs, shoes, and accessories for the dolls to wear. For more information visit

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles