Dollhouse display aimed at raising awareness

Photo by Daniel Heraty

Dearborn resident Heather Wolf and her 5-year-old son Gage visit a collection of 14 dollhouses aimed at raising awareness for Tuner Syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects girls and women.

Times-Herald Newspapers

DEARBORN – After being diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder in 2002, Jennifer Wakenell, 23, wanted to make awareness of the condition part of her life’s work.

Following her diagnosis with Turner Syndrome, which includes characteristics such as short stature, a broad chest and a curvature of the spine, she and her mother created a display of 14 miniature dollhouses.

Called Turner Town, the dollhouse collection tells the story of a girl named Joy as she learns to live with the condition. The stories featured at the display are partially based on Wakenell’s own life and have been featured at the Carl Sandburg Library in Livonia and Turner Syndrome Awareness Conferences in Indianapolis in 2010 and Buffalo in 2011.

Meant to educate visitors, the dollhouses, while they don’t feature Joy living with the condition specifically, tell her story as she lives a normal life.

The display, which continues at the Henry Ford Centennial Library thoughg date, started small before growing into a national exhibit.

“It has been displayed (at statewide libraries) for six years,” she said, “and it didn’t look like that when it began.”

The condition, named after the doctor who first discovered the symptoms and features in the 1930s, is a chromosomal abnormality affecting only girls and women because of the absence of an X chromosome. Many girls born with the condition do not live beyond birth; about 1 percent of them survive to adulthood.

Calling the display a “labor of love,” Wakenell said the it has allowed her to serve as an advocate for the condition. She said many people have sought her help and guidance, including an instance at a library in Plymouth where a man told Wakenell his wife miscarried two girls with the condition. She said she hoped her advice and sympathetic ear helped him.

“Hopefully, I gave him some peace of mind,” she said.

The genesis of the project began when Wakenell, a graduate student at the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor, inherited two dollhouses from her mother’s aunt in 2005. She said the houses were not in great shape when she got them.

“My mom’s aunt actually made two houses when she was in her 70s,” she said. “So they needed some cleaning up.”

Many of the dollhouses, she said, were discarded or purchased at garage sales. She said sometimes the houses were in need of repair and needed new windows, doors or roofs. She sad the restoration process can be lengthy, taking anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, depending on the size and condition of the house.

Setting up and organizing the display took Wakenell and her mother about two days, Deputy Library Director Julie Schefer said, adding because of the interactive nature of the exhibit, Wakenell expects some damage and possible loss, but Schaefer said they were more interested in getting their message across.

The exhibit is featured in the children’s section so they and their parents can learn more about the condition and how to recognize the symptoms. She said visitors can read Joy’s story and picture themselves in her shoes and parents could learn some of the facts.

Wakenell said in addition to her work with Turner Town, she is working to make February National Turner Syndrome Awareness Month for one reason.

“Because of the height difference (in Turner Syndrome patients),” she said, “so the shortest month seemed kind of appropriate.”

(Daniel Heraty can be reached at