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Hoosiers Find Stress Relief in New Hobbies During Pandemic

Julie Lothamer repurposes cardboard boxes into modern dollhouses, taking inspiration from real houses in architecture magazines.

In a year of working from home, lockdowns and take-out food, it’s been important to find ways of occupying your timeat home. Many people have picked up new hobbies or habits during the pandemic, due to an increase in free time or boredom. 


Online searches for home gyms are up more than 300 percent from March of last year. Tinkering, sewing and crochet searches are up more than 100 percent. That’s all according to couponing site Picodi’s analysis of Google searches over the past year.

Americans overwhelmingly spent the year learning new skills or rediscovering old interests. But it’s not just in the U.S. Earlier this month, CNN looked at how people around the world were sharing their new passions during the pandemic.

Hoosiers are no different.

Jaclyn Garver is a Fort Wayne resident who took the opportunity that the pandemic presented to pursue an old passion in a more professional capacity.

Garver said she’s been writing poetry since she was a kid and even minored in Creative Writing at Kent State University. But the idea of pursuing poetry any further than that and working alongside seasoned poets always felt too intimidating.

“And I started seeing all of these poetry classes that were available online which was so much friendlier and less intimidating,” Garver said.

Garver said she took one class with one specific instructor and fell in love with it. She reached out to the instructor and asked to take more classes with her.

Before she knew it, the instructor invited Garver to take part in a super intensive workshop, even offering her a half scholarship.

“Which just blew my mind and I was dancing around the house so excited,” she said.

From there, Garver said it began to snowball.

“If you had told me a year ago that ‘oh, yeah, you’re gonna do this and this and you’re gonna have so much work together that you’re proud of that you’re gonna have a manuscript together that you’re gonna be pitching to contests,’ I would have laughed at you," she said. "There was no way. There was no possibility.”

Now, Garver has been published in several online spaces and has work pending acceptance at a few print journals. She said she never anticipated it going so well and finding a mentor in the field.

But she’s looking forward to when in-person workshops and conferences begin again. Garver said she wants to take a week or two and have the type of immersive experience those gatherings offer.

“It’s still a little intimidating but I am so excited to do more and to be more involved with that,” she said.

While being isolated indoors, many people looked to find ways to bring a little bit of the outdoors to them. Searches for gardening were up 50 percent and a survey by STORAGECafe listed bird watching as a “surprising new pastime” for Americans.

Wild Birds Unlimited is a nature shop based out of Indianapolis, with a store front in Fort Wayne. With more than 300 stores across the U.S. and Canada, Chief Naturalist John Schaust said they have a pretty good pulse on what’s going on in North America.

Schaust said in the last year they’ve seen bird watching go through the roof. They’ve seen an uptick in new customers, looking to get bird feeders for their yards or find out the best type of seeds to bring a diverse population of birds.

“It’s just something that brings a lot of joy to people, it brings a lot of distraction, comfort to people," Schaust said. "And I think the word has just spread organically.”

Schaust said he suspects it’s been through word of mouth, mostly, that’s turned people on to the hobby. Seeing neighbors or friends with bird feeders enjoying it has made others want to give it a try.

He said it’s also a nice distraction for people working from home, a moment to break away from the stress of work.

“I’m stuck at home, I’ve been working from home for the past year," Schaust said. "And I’ve got my desk and everything set up in front of a big picture window that looks out over my backyard and I watch my bird feeders as I work all day long. And it really helps.”

And Schaust said it’s a theme they’ve heard from customers, as well.

“People say ‘It’s my happy place,’" he said. "So, that’s pretty cool.”

For others, taking on something new in quarantine has also meant rediscovering an old passion.

Julie Lothamer visited an antique shop and found inspiration in an old saloon the size of a dollhouse. She said it struck an idea to begin crafting her own dollhouses from cardboard boxes.

“And it’s like ‘Oh! I could do that!’" Lothamer said. "Well mine doesn’t look anything like that.”

Rather, Lothamer took her own spin on the classic dollhouse, using a mix of cardboard boxes, clearance paint and cardstock.

“I tease that they’re Frank Lloyd Wright-type because they’re just, you know, they’re whatever boxes fit together,” she said.

Lothamer goes to grocery stores and gets used boxes that they don’t need, using them to create the base of the house. Then she goes to the clearance section at home improvement stores -- where they sell the paint that may have been used once and returned -- which she uses to paint the walls of the houses, or she’ll buy some patterned paper to use as wallpaper.

To add things like light fixtures or doorknobs, Lothamer digs out some old jewelry and attaches them to the space.

Lothamer uses photos from magazines to add dimension to the houses.

She said she gets her inspiration from real houses she sees in architecture magazines, using the boxes to craft modern dollhouses.

"It’s a lot of fun and just something to do to keep busy," she said. "And it was fun and it makes me laugh because I’m playing with dollhouses.”

Lothamer said she’s always had an interest in architecture and has previously done other similar projects, like using Lincoln Logs to create houses with her grandchildren.

"So now I’m an architect again, in my own little way,” she said.

Lothamer has a dozen dollhouses in some state of completion and hopes to sell them to families with kids or will otherwise donate them to organizations that need toys for children. 

She said the project became a necessity as COVID-19 restrictions continued on into the fall.

“You’re inside and you can’t go inside other people’s houses and you can’t be social, then you’re gonna go bananas, if you don’t find something,” Lothamer said.

It’s a familiar sentiment, the need for something to keep us all occupied as we navigated life in a pandemic. Schaust referred to watching the birds as a little bit of an escape.

Garver was able to go back to some old poetry she’d written and create something new from it.

“One that just got published is like a Frankenstein’s monster poem of stuff that I wrote when I was like 20 - I mean, this stuff is 17 years old - that I just pieced and patched together,” Garver said.

Garver said she likes to hear what people have found in the past year to keep them passionate or occupied.

"I think it’s really insightful and really interesting and tells you a lot about a person as to what good they have found in all this,” she said.

But, what about when people return to working outside of their homes or aren’t spending as much time at home? Schaust said he can’t say for certain, but he’s optimistic about people’s interest in the pastimes they’ve found.

“I admit, I’m kind of a geek. I’ve been doing this for literally 40 years and I’m still as excited about it," he said. "I still love it as much as I did 40 years ago and I think that kind of excitement, that fun, that joy - I think that kind of attraction and that kind of involvement with the hobby will linger on for most of our new customers. I think they’re gonna stay with it now.”

As vaccines continue to roll out and we slowly make our way out of a time of uncertainty, these hobbies -- whether lucrative or simply an escape from our day-to-day stress -- could continue to remain as a comfort.

Ella Abbott is a multimedia reporter for 89.1 WBOI. She is a strong believer in the ways audio storytelling can engage an audience and create a sensory experience.
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