Most little girls love dolls. When 17-year-old Ariella Pacheco was growing up, she was no exception. Since kids tend to bond best with dolls that resemble them, the American Girl doll Pacheco chose for herself looked like it could have been her sister.
“She looked like me and I felt there was a piece of me in her,” Pacheco, now a senior at Cathedral Catholic High School, told The San Diego Union-Tribune. “You see yourself in a doll and it’s really special to have that connection.”
Children find comfort and connection interacting with dolls that reflect their own physical image as well as their racial and cultural heritage, but until recently, finding diversity when shopping for them has been difficult.
While mass-market selections have become increasingly inclusive in recent years, some segments of the population continue to be excluded. Children whose rare medical conditions render their appearances different from the norm have little to no hope of finding their likeness at a toy store or even online.
Knowing just how important making that very personal connection could be for a child gave Pacheco an idea.
Inspired by Milwaukee doll designer Amy Jandrisevits, whose “A Doll Like Me” project makes custom-designed dolls for children with disabilities, Pacheco decided that for her annual service project for her school’s National Honor Society chapter, she’d design and sew unique dolls to donate to children with rare medical conditions.
To find the kids she hoped to create unique dolls for, Pacheco partnered with Fresh Start Surgical Gifts in Carlsbad, California, a charitable organization that provides surgical and medical treatment free of charge to children who need it.
Pacheco was sent pictures and profiles for a number of potential doll subjects from the ranks of Fresh Start’s clients. She eventually narrowed the field to four.
The dolls she designed feature one with a port-wine birthmark, another with surgical scars, one with jaw alignment issues, and one with facial and cranial anomalies.
Michelle Pius, Fresh Start’s chief development officer was “blown away” by the final product. “It was a very kind and big-hearted gesture on her part to make dolls that will help a child feel like they’re not alone,” she said.
Before getting started, Pacheco scoured YouTube for sewing and pattern-making tutorials, and read up on her subjects’ favorite pastimes and preferred color palettes. Her goal was to ensure the kids could see themselves in her creations, but she didn’t want the things that set them apart from their peers to be the dolls’ most obvious feature.
“The whole time I was trying to put as much love into it as I could and hoped they represented each child faithfully,” Pacheco said. “I really value the beauty in the little things. Each of these kids [is] so unique, so special… I hope through these dolls they can see themselves in a new light and really embrace their beauty.”