Like most children, Tina Rhodes cherished stuffed animals when she was little.
“I grew up with asthma, so for a few years as a kid I was in and out of the hospital,” the 29-year-old from Virginia Beach told TODAY Parents. “I always brought my bunny Michelle, even though the doctors called her a dust sponge. My mom would go to bat and firmly defend me to have my bunny.”
During a trip to Walgreens as a child, Rhodes picked out a stuffed bear for her mom, Susan, as a gift for Valentine’s Day. Through the years, the beloved stuffed animal, dubbed ‘Baby Bear,’ had become tattered and marred by a large hole.
Susan had planned to throw it away, but Rhodes promised she could fix the well-loved stuffie.
Tragically, Rhodes’ mom passed away in March 2020 after a long battle with lymphoma before the bear-mending project came to be.
As the world shut down in 2020, so did Rhodes.
“For a couple months I didn't do anything,” she shared. “I was furloughed from work. I was at home playing Animal Crossing to cope and grieve.”
After getting lost watching TikTok one day, Rhodes committed to doing creative projects and recording them to the video sharing platform to pull herself out of her grief-induced funk. Prior to the pandemic, she had spent her free time making costumes and attending comic conventions, so sewing was a familiar outlet.
“Baby Bear was my first project,” Rhodes told TODAY, adding that she described her project to her hairstylist, who immediately asked to have a stuffed animal from childhood restored.
Rhodes never expected her grief journey would become a TikTok sensation.
“As I was doing it, I made a little TikTok about it,” she said. “And that was my very first viral video.”
She began getting one or two commissions a month from across the country.
“I felt like a stuffed animal foster mom,” Rhodes said. “I got to clean them, love on them and send them back to their forever homes.”
In October 2020, Rhodes spent two days responding to a couple dozen email inquiries.
“My husband Keith said, ‘What are you going to do when you have 100 emails?’” Rhodes recalled. “I just said, ‘Oh, that’s not going to happen.’”
The seamstress is now eating her words. Rhodes’ waitlist stretches beyond 2022.
“I did the math (and) I could be working on stuffies for the next sixty years and not make it through my queue,” she shared, adding that the concept has grown into something so much more than playing around on TikTok. “I’m so thankful, because restoring these stuffed animals helps me restore myself and come back to myself from grieving and going through 2020.”
Rhodes said she treats each stuffed animal with an individualized care plan.
“The basic process is to receive each one in the mail and really break down the care plan for them once I see them in person,” she said. “I email their person and let them know they’re here safe, then I unstuff them to deep clean them. The cleaning process is multiple soaks with a gentle solution and once they’re clean and dry, I can do repairs.”
Common repairs include replacing eyes, repairing noses, patching bald spots on fur, fixing holes and tracking down missing accessories.
The finished touch is to give them new life.
“I always take a little bit of their stuffing to put in a heart to keep all their memories and magic in them,” Rhodes said.
The fun quarantine hobby is now turning into a business venture. Rhodes is working on branding and has plans to build a website.
“I’ve dubbed it the ‘Stuffie Spa,’” she said, adding that her current social media handle, ‘Viva Valentina,’ was her online alias for cosplay. “I’ve been creating under this alias and I’m like, I really need to name the stuffie spa. Viva Valentina always meant to live for what you love and what you do, so it very much embodies my values and core beliefs, so I’m not changing my name after all of this.”
In an effort to keep up, Rhodes recently hired her best friend from fifth grade to help manage emails.
She added, “And I have friends who are stuffed animal enthusiasts who are going to work with me in the Stuffie Spa to help more people.”
Ultimately, helping people is Rhodes’ goal.
“It’s so amazing to see the community (that has formed), because we are all looking for comfort,” she said. “They’re such simple things — the lovies — but, no matter how old you are, they will still always bring you comfort. I always say I perform magic, but not miracles. I can never make them new-new, but I can get them as close as possible.”