The dolls feature a range of unique physical traits, including a port-wine stain birthmark, surgical scars, a jaw alignment issue, and face and cranial differences.
As a young girl, Ariella Pacheco had an American Girl doll that looked just like her. Her parents had let her choose the doll herself from a catalog and it was the one with the hair color and style that matched her own that appealed to her the most. "She looked like me and I felt there was a piece of me in her," the teen from Encinitas, California, told The San Diego Union-Tribune. "You see yourself in a doll and it's really special to have that connection." As she grew up, the now 17-year-old realized that not every kid has the privilege of seeing themselves reflected in their favorite dolls or represented in society.
Wanting to share the gift she received as a child with youngsters who have rare medical conditions that give them a unique appearance, Pacheco decided to make beautiful tailor-made dolls that one would never find amidst the mass-produced dolls on store shelves. She spent the past several months designing and sewing custom cloth dolls that feature a range of unique physical traits, including a port-wine stain birthmark, surgical scars, a jaw alignment issue, and face and cranial differences. They bear the likeness of four local youth who are now set to receive the dolls.
"I really value the beauty in the little things," the teen explained. "Each of these kids are so unique, so special. I hope through these dolls they can see themselves in a new light and really embrace their beauty." Although Zulema Gillett—one of the doll recipients—is no longer a child, she's honored to have been chosen for the project nonetheless. The 21-year-old was born with a cleft lip, a misaligned jaw, and only one ear due to a condition called Goldenhar syndrome. Explaining why she loves the idea of special dolls for special children, Gillett said: "Who doesn’t want a doll that looks like them that they could relate to? It's really nice and very thoughtful."
When she was little, Ariella Pacheco, 17, had an American Girl doll that looked just like her. To give children with scars, birthmarks and cranio/facial differences that same connectivity experience, she has created custom dolls that look just like them. https://t.co/ZVthZlCegx pic.twitter.com/yDHNDAtCPP— Pam Kragen (@pamkragen) August 16, 2020
Pacheco—an incoming senior at Cathedral Catholic High School in Carmel Valley—designed the dolls as part of her annual service project for the school's National Honor Society chapter in collaboration with Fresh Start Surgical Gifts in Carlsbad. All four doll recipients are clients of the 19-year-old charitable organization that provides free surgeries and other medical treatment for children whose families cannot afford cosmetic surgical procedures or whose insurance doesn't cover it.
Speaking of the teen's project, Michelle Pius—the chief development officer for Fresh Start Surgical Gifts—said she was "blown away" when she first saw the dolls. Pius explained that while Fresh Start's young clients tend to be shy about their appearance in public, they're eager to connect with each other when they meet in the surgical clinic. "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. Pacheco revealed that she got the idea for the doll project in January when she remembered a magazine story she'd previously read.
Ariella Pacheco was inspired to make dolls that look like children with rare medical conditions so that they, too, can have dolls that they relate to. pic.twitter.com/nOAsRVoytD— A Plus (@aplusapp) August 25, 2020
The article was about Milwaukee doll designer Amy Jandrisevits who makes custom look-alike dolls for children with disabilities. The teen then reached out to Pius at Fresh Start and enquired whether she could create similar dolls for some of its young clients. Pius loved the idea and sent Pacheco pictures and information on several clients who might enjoy a doll. After picking four from the list, the teen found out the subjects' favorite sports, hobbies, and favorite colors and watched doll-making tutorials on Youtube. She then designed her own patterns for the dolls and figured out how to re-create the subjects' unique facial features. "I hope they’re really excited with them," said Pacheco. "The whole time I was trying to put as much love into it as I could and hoped they represented each child faithfully."