November 30, 2014 05:35 PM

It started with an impossible poodle.

Cortney Wisbauer was fresh out of William Paterson University with a degree in Art Education but no immediate teaching job when two girls she babysits begged her last December to help them with something they saw online: a toy poodle fashioned out of rubber bands woven over a pegged loom.

“I watched the video and just had no idea how to do it,” says Wisbauer, 23, an artist and aspiring K-through-12 art teacher who lives with her parents in northern New Jersey. “But I went home that day telling myself that one day I’m going to make that poodle and show them I actually did it.”

The day after Christmas last year, she bought herself a Rainbow Loom and went to work. Within a month, she had mastered not only a poodle, but a miniature version of her own dog – half-Maltese, half-Havanese – and the black dragon known as Toothless from one of her movie favorites, How To Train Your Dragon.

For fun, she propped her laptop on her parents’ countertop and filmed the making of Toothless, posting on YouTube the tutorial, which has since been viewed more than 380,000 times. Enough people responded that she posted another video of another dragon. And then another.

Wisbauer, who goes by Cortney Nicole online, quickly developed a following who not only made fanciful requests – one fan recently petitioned for a tutorial on making a giant horse – but who shared sometimes emotionally raw testimonials of how her videos and their cute little rubbery creations have been like therapy.

Single mom Kirsten Young, an American living in Warwickshire, U.K., says her son Julian, 11, was growing distant and she worried about how to keep him engaged over the summer break – until she found Wisbauer’s videos online. “I thought I was seriously losing him,” Young wrote to Wisbauer. But soon, mother and son were looming dragons side by side. “We spent hours upon hours cooperating, creating and connecting. It was like medicine.”

Joshua Rivera, 14, says he was in a “slump” before discovering Wisbauer and her critters. “I had problems interacting with other people and making friends,” the Brooklyn, New York, teen tells PEOPLE. “When I first saw Cortney’s videos, I felt like, ‘Oh, I can’t do this. It’s too difficult.’” But after staying up all night to make his first dragon, he felt like king of the world. “I’ve made each and every design she’s created and I know now that, when you want something that bad, you will be able to accomplish it,” Rivera says.

For little Caleb Edwards, 7, Wisbauer’s dragons, which his mom, Sara Edwards, has loomed by the bucketful, have meant the difference between loneliness and laughter.

Drug-addicted at birth and in foster care until he was 4 and adopted by the Edwardses, Caleb struggled against various diagnoses – ADHD, reactive attachment disorder, oppositional defiance disorder, and post-traumatic stress – to live a normal childhood, says his mom. “It has always been hard for Caleb to make friends,” Edwards says. Until, that is, she came across Wisbauer’s YouTube channel by “blissful accident” and started making dragons for her boy.

“He keeps them in a Halloween bucket and takes them just about everywhere we go,” Edwards says. And Caleb delights in introducing the dragons to whoever he meets. “He even lets other kids play with them with him. Looming these dragons together the way we do has brought us closer. It is that one thing that is ‘our’ time,” Edwards says. “Seeing his eyes light up when a dragon is finished makes my heart leap.”

Wisbauer’s, too. Having suffered depression herself as a pre-teen, the letters and emails from fans are especially meaningful, she says. “If I wasn’t getting these personal testimonies from people, I probably wouldn’t have kept it up,” says Wisbauer. “But they keep me going.” Her pink poodle, Diva, walked in a Nov. 20 fashion show at the Chicago Toy and Game Show. And now Wisbauer, who counts a baby kangaroo, snow owl and Hunger Games-style Mockingjay among her creations, is getting to work on, at last, a poodle tutorial of her own. A less impossible one, she hopes.

“It’s amazing that something that started out as a silly hobby – for a college graduate, anyway – became something something life-changing,” she says, “for so many people.”

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