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'Turtle Lady' comes out of her shell

January 30, 2012

Sandy Skuderna started making and giving away her turtles in 2009.

PLYMOUTH — What do a tired waitress, a lonely patient receiving their umpteenth IV stick and a shy third-grader have in common?
Turtles.
If you live in Marshall County you may have been touched by the Turtle Lady – or maybe you’ve seen these palm-sized creatures around town at checkouts, on clerks’ aprons at the fabric store or in the possession of someone wearing a smile.
Sandy Skuderna, 63, started making and giving away her turtles in 2009. Since then, more than 4,000 have passed through her hands — some going as far as the Horn of Africa with her daughter, who is in the U.S. Navy.
It all started when her husband, Donald, had health problems that required regular visits to St. Joseph Regional Health Center in Plymouth. Having to leave suddenly that day, she grabbed her craft bag not knowing what projects were in it — she likes to keep her hands busy.
It turned out she had been working on a turtle pincushion, so that’s what she pulled out during the nervous wait times characteristic of a hospital visit.
Skuderna said the first one looked like “road kill,” so she modified her pattern and created an assembly line. “(Donald) kept throwing them to the nurses and telling them to put the needles in them instead!”
That made everyone laugh, so Sandy kept it up.
Culver Academies’ food service employee Rex Harness said he was in the Plymouth oncology waiting room with his mother, who was a patient, one day when Skuderna came by with her turtles. “We were just sitting there and she came in and she had a basket and she came up to us if we wanted a turtle,” Rex said. “You don’t have people handing out things every day. I thought it was wonderful for someone to take the time to make a craft like that. It’s helpful.”
One day, an elderly woman was all alone getting yet another IV and she just started crying, Skuderna said. A nurse ran up and asked for a turtle. The patient was distracted from the painful treatment by talking about turtles on her dad’s farm as a child.
Another day, a young patient was going through chemotherapy when a nurse ran to Skuderna and requested a purple turtle.
“I looked in my bag and, sure enough, there was one with a purplish shell. They said that really helped the little girl,” she said.
When Skuderna goes to Ponderosa once a month, she always leaves a turtle with her tip to the point that one server has a basket at her front door filled with Sandy’s turtles. She told her she placed them in her home using the Chinese art of feng shui to bring luck.
Ponderosa Manager Kathryn Dejarnatt remembers Skuderna from Parks Department enrichment classes in ceramics in the 1990s. Dejarnatt said she remembers crying in the first class that she could never do it, but Sandy encouraged her.
“I took that class every Saturday for years,” she said. “I probably have eight or nine ceramic dolls from that. Every time she comes in she tells everyone I was her favorite student and she leaves a turtle. The servers are, like, ‘Oh what is this turtle!?’ They always take them home.”
Plymouth Jo-Ann Fabric employees all wear them on their aprons and the turtles can be found resting at checkouts of local businesses from Knox to Bremen.
Jo-Ann employee Susan Raffin said she has several and when Skuderna learned she has a grandson, sent her home with one for him. “She is the sweetest lady you’d ever want to meet,” Raffin said.
This season, Skuderna gave a turtle to someone who helped her at the store and they told her that was the only Christmas gift they received. And once, she said, she hugged an elderly turtle recipient who responded with, “You know, it’s been years since someone hugged me.”
Talk about positive reinforcement.
Skuderna said she has since learned turtles symbolize good luck throughout the world — they are an important part of many cultures, including Guam where she once visited her sea-captain uncle’s 10 children – he stayed there after World War II after falling in love with a local. They all have turtles.
Skuderna said she has been drawn to turtles since her dad took the time to let her feel a soft shell turtle in Dixon Lake before releasing it. As a child on Pine Creek her cousin Jim once took her and her cousins to dig in the sandy bank.
“We dug out these ping-pong balls with little turtles crawling in them and he told us they were turtle eggs and we had to put them back,” she said. “I don’t know why I’ve always had turtles in my life. I have a sign in my kitchen that says ‘I’m having a turtley kind of day.’ ”
“I cook dinner; sit down and sew a bit. Clean up, sit down and sew a bit. Sweep the floor and sew a little bit,” she said. She works from an old Singer featherweight.
Most of her sewing supplies are gifts – a friend drops off some old fabric, her daughter found some glass beads for eyes. Someone offers her bits and pieces and ends for cheap.
The turtle project seems to miraculously sustain.
“I’m a toymaker by nature … we never had any money so your make your own,” she said.
Skuderna’s father used to make bicycles for kids in town using things he picked up at the junk yard, she said, and once he made a sled you could steer with handle bars from an old bike. As a girl, she literally grew up in an actual boxcar with a pot belly stove. Her mom made dioramas from old shoe boxes. “You could shine a light in the top hole and she would make fairies in a wooded setting. When I was a little girl I used to think I could see them moving!”
Skuderna is quick to repeat she doesn’t make the turtles for fame or fortune (they only cost about 25 cents to make). She does it because making others smile makes her feel better.
“It’s been more good for me than anyone else,” she said. “The art is to make people smile; it’s kind of a selfish thing for me.”
She said she is impressed by nurses caring for and loving people who sometimes die. “Everyone is being touched by cancer or something,” she said. “People need something. … Sometimes people are so aloof and superior and when I give them a turtle they come down a little bit and I realize they have things going on, too.”
Skuderna’s personal life has been host to more tragedy and misfortune than most. But she doesn’t complain. What her life experiences have taught her is we all need a boost now and then – and maybe a simple act of turtley kindness is all it takes to help someone through the day.
As Skuderna said, “Everyone can do something to make someone else smile. Everyone can find something.”

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