While relationships boil down to a great deal more than material goods, a present is a tangible way to show someone that they matter. Not only did you think about something they would like, but you spent your own time and money to make it a reality.
When one Massachusetts teen received gift from a special friend, however, the exchange took on an even greater significance. Not only did it change the recipient’s life, but it prompted one global company to make a dramatic move of its own.
As a boy, Matt Shifrin of Newton, Massachusetts loved playing with his LEGO models. But, try as he might, he always encountered one unique challenge that made it difficult to assemble his favorite sets.
Matt happened to be blind. Understandably, his lack of vision led to an inescapable disappointment every time he opened a new LEGO set. Though he could fumble his way through builds, one consistent issue always tripped him up.
While Shifrin could identify different pieces by feeling their shape, he didn’t know how they connected. Each box came with an instruction booklet, but it was never very useful.
LEGO directions are never 100% clear, but Shifrin couldn’t make out what little guidance they offered at all. Unless someone was around to guide his construction, he had to guess which piece belonged in which spot.
Shifrin’s friend, Lilya Finkel, understood his growing frustration. She decided that she would do something special for Matt’s 13th birthday; he was going to finally enjoy his LEGO sets like every other kid.
She knew that Matt longed to complete one of the elaborate construction projects. His birthday, she figured, was the perfect opportunity to help him finally assemble the 821 piece LEGO Prince of Persia Battle of Alamut set.
She wasn’t just going to read Shifrin the instructions, however. Finkel came up with a plan that would help her friend experience the joy of assembling a LEGO set on his own.
When the big day came, Finkel presented him with a binder. It contained the full instructions to the Prince of Persia set, translated into Braille. Shifrin ran his fingers over the letters; he was speechless.
“I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t think it was possible. With these Braille instructions, everything really clicked,” Shifrin, now 22, remembered. His friend had showed him that blindness wasn’t a complete roadblock.
“She made names for all the parts,” Shifrin explained. “She was of the opinion that I, as a blind child, should have access to everything that my sighted friends have access to.”
That gift inspired a labor of love. Shifrin and Finkel worked together, producing Braille instructions for over 20 different LEGO sets. But, one day, their project was suddenly cut short.
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In 2017, Finkel passed away; Matt’s long-time friend was suddenly gone. But he was determined to carry on their translation efforts; he reached out to a new partner, looking for renewed support.
“When she died, I thought to myself that I need to reach out to LEGO,” Shifrin said. “I need to keep this project going because blind kids don’t have Lilyas in their lives.”
While he had reached out to the LEGO’s customer service representatives before, this interaction was different. Eventually he heard back from the company; they wanted to understand his perspective on their products.
He then teamed up with the company to create official audio and Braille building instructions. Now every amateur architect would have access to the same level of help that Finkel offered all those years ago.
The goal was to make LEGOs as accessible as possible; no one, regardless of their physical capabilities, should be denied the chance to indulge their creativity. But, according to Shifrin, the toys did something even more important.
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LEGOs help blind children become familiar with the outside world. Building a model of the Empire State Building, for example, makes the famous landmark more of a real thing and less of an abstract concept.
“When they build these buildings themselves, they become intimately familiar with the shaping of these buildings and why these buildings matter,” Shifrin explained. But LEGOs also impact blind children at a much more personal level.
Completing a LEGO set, with or without help, Shifrin explained, can change the course of a child’s life. “It’s very important to instill confidence and independence in these kids,” he said.
Sifrin wanted to make sure that every child feels like they can complete their own building projects. It’s his chance to continue Finkel’s labor of love from all those years ago.
“I think she’d be very glad that we came this far,” Shifrin concluded. “We’d always hoped that it would — we weren’t sure it would — but I think she’d be happy.” Fortunately, LEGO proved willing to do what was right in this situation.
In fact, while working with Shifrin, the building-blocks company also teamed up with one of the most bizarre cultural wonders in Vienna, the Bestattungsmuseum. This institution shines a light on a very peculiar subject, one which sends many tourists heading for the hills.
You see, the Bestattungsmuseum is a funeral museum. Its exhibits reflect on the many death rituals used throughout the years and demonstrate more obscure aspects of the process that most people may not realize.
The museum contains a ton of history, too, as it’s connected to a cemetery where esteemed figures like Ludwig Van Beethoven are buried. Of course, Bestattungsmuseum is looking toward the future too, and the staff has got some friends to help them out.
As a matter of fact, these two could be the most valuable members of the team. But what are Legos doing at a funeral museum, you ask? Well, when it comes to the circle of life, you have to consider the most undereducated segment of the population.
With the infinite combinations made possible by just a handful of bricks, Legos are likely the most versatile toy out there. They can transform into anything, with just a little bit of childhood imagination.
The good folks at Bestattungsmuseum realized that Legos could even help kids better understand strange and frightening concepts. So, in 2016, a small group started experimenting with custom Lego sets to explore death and burials.
They started off safe with a model from the past, perhaps to keep the first version from hitting too close to home. The museum built a miniature tram based off vehicles used to move bodies around the 1920s and ’30s.
From there, the project continued with another funerary vehicle, this time in the form of a retro hearse. After these pieces spent some time on display, the museum got some surprising responses.
According to Dr. Florian Keusch, spokesman for the Bestattungsmuseum, hordes of parents approached them with questions. Many were stumped about how to best set up a dialogue with grieving children, but there was something to these Legos.
Whereas real funerals and burials came off as scary and alien to kids, Lego models didn’t threaten them at all. Florian took the feedback to heart and chose to expand the Lego project.
The museum staff, confident as ever, went all out with their next batch of Lego sets. They constructed a dynamic burial set with a coffin that could be moved in and out of a grave. From there, the creators addressed the even more taboo sides of dying.
Though it was a gamble, Bestattungsmuseum released sets that featured both living and dead figurines. Controversially, these characters appeared to be members of the same family. But the museum felt it was responsible for not sugarcoating death — at all.
Their boldest Lego configuration has to be a crematorium, complete with a rather disgruntled-looking undertaker holding an urn. Florian admitted that not everyone is on board with their unconventional mission.
“0.00001 percent of people were disgusted because they have only read the headline ‘LEGO crematoria’ and didn’t get the intentions behind these products,” Florian explained. Most people, on the other hand, supported the kid-friendly project.
The museum isn’t diving into these matters without consulting the experts either. They partnered with the Viennese Association of Psychotherapists to ensure their Legos actually help teach children. Recently, an unintended audience also picked up on it.
Once the online community caught wind of the experiment, orders for the funerary Legos boomed. Though many sets cost close to €100, collectors couldn’t get enough of the wholly unique models.
Nevertheless, the Bestattungsmuseum intends to keep the focus on erasing stigmas, and not driving up shock-value profits. Now that they have an array of sets under their belts, they feel they can really tell a full story.
When it comes down to it, the museum knows it’s best to be prepared for the hard facts of life. Thanks to Legos, maybe kids and adults alike can even have a little fun while coming to grips with mortality.
Only time will tell whether these models ever catch on beyond the Bestattungsmuseum. But at least Florian and his colleagues can rest easy knowing they made life a little less frightening.
After all, sometimes the scariest looking toys have the most power. That’s why the people of a quiet Sydney, Australia, shop dedicate their lives to a one-of-a-kind mission the Bestattungsmuseum could be proud of.
If you glanced through the window of this shop, you would be forgiven for mistaking the experts inside for doctors. Their work does resemble surgery. They even think of themselves as medical professionals, in a sense. That’s probably how they came up with their business name.
Meet the hard workers behind the Original Doll Hospital. This unusual establishment has served the greater Sydney area for over 100 years now. Of course, a specialized business like this doesn’t just pop up for no good reason.
Back in 1913, an Australian general store owner named Mr. Chapman imported Japanese dolls, which were popular at the time. However, the fragile figurines often cracked and broke during the voyage. Chapman couldn’t make any profit off of damaged goods.
So he turned to his brother, Harold Chapman, for some assistance. A local handyman, Harold had a knack for fixing up just about anything. With his vast array of tools and close attention to detail, he began repairing his brother’s broken dolls.
As more and more Sydneysiders learned of Harold’s skill, he opened up his own repair business in the back of the general store. While he patched up all manner of household goods, toys became his specialty.
Following the end of the Second World War, Australia lifted its importing restrictions and Harold found himself flooded with more business than he could handle. It was a good problem to have, but a problem nonetheless.
With his clientele base growing, Harold needed more hands on deck. He passed along the shop to his son, Harold Jr., who understood they needed more space for their large inventory. He relocated the store to its current location.
All these years later, the Original Doll Hospital remains a family business. Geoff Chapman, the grandson of the elder Harold, acts as the owner and “surgeon-in-chief.” Even in his 70s, he takes playing with toys quite seriously. But how has he been at it for so long?
It’s hard to believe how a doll hospital could survive in the age of online shopping, but to put it simply, they are good at what they do. Few other establishments in Australia, or the world, can mend precious items with such surgical precision.
Plus, they deal in saving highly personal and sentimental possessions. Most are one of a kind. Geoff says it’s not unusual to see a customer burst into tears once they see a previously damaged item restored to mint condition.
And make no mistake: this is hard work. Each member of Geoff’s team is a trained professional, and any slip-ups could result in an irreversible mistake. They might not be M.D.s, but that doesn’t mean they don’t take their job seriously. The hospital comparisons don’t end there either.
The front of the store even presents itself as a type of hospital, with separate areas dedicated to different types of repairs. Whatever the “patient”‘ may be, they will find a place to treat it.
Naturally, any doll hospital worth its salt has a ward for vintage dollhouses. These masterpieces are among the most detailed items on the antique market, so they require extra care. After all, the most coveted dollhouses sell in the millions!
But the Hospital doesn’t shy away from more ordinary items. Many teddy bears, often the most loved and run-down personal items, come through to get re-stuffed or to get a torn limb reattached.
Of course, the doll remains the true mainstay of Geoff’s Chapman’s business. No two are alike, so employees always have to stay on their toes. Some parts of the repair process are especially challenging.
According to employee Kerry Stuart, “The thing I like least is eyes. It’s a very difficult balancing act to get them right, so it does take a while. Sometimes I have to do them three times before I’m happy with them.”
Because dolls come in every shape and size imaginable, the shop has to keep a vast array of spare parts in stock. The tinkerers in the back are always linking up different limbs, torsos, and heads. But as much as the workers are like doctors, they are also artists.
They know the details are what really makes a doll precious. Many of their orders are to replace a toy’s hair or touch up its color. Emotionally speaking, these little things really connect a person to their childhood mementos.
Work at the Original Doll Hospital is far from typical, but the employees certainly take great pleasure in it — and so do their customers. At this hospital, everybody leaves smiling, whether the smiles are genuine or just painted on.
Baltimore Sun / Jerry Jackson