Dollies Without Borders sends handmade toys to developing countries
By Bridget Higginbotham
“This doll is really naked,” proclaimed 4-year-old Ainsley Sisk as she kissed its cloth head and plopped down on the floor of the Shands Cancer Resource Center to dig through doll clothes.
After she dressed the doll in a pink shirt and black, checkered pants and gave it a face and hair, Ainsley added it to a box with 25 others to be sent to an orphanage in the Guangdong Province of China.
Hundreds of handmade dolls and stuffed animals have been gifted to children around the world thanks to Dollies Without Borders, a project started by Shands artist-in-residence Madeline Austin.
Dollies Without Borders has been making and sending dolls to countries such as Rwanda, Thailand, Haiti and Peru since 2006, but Nov. 13 was the first time it hosted a give-a-doll, get-a-doll event. Ainsley and other members of the group Families With Children from Asia each made two dolls, one to send and one to keep. Held during National Adoption Month, it was an opportunity for families to help the children still in orphanages in Asia.
“So many kids are still there and they have nothing,” said Amelia Connors, who adopted her daughter Amanda, 7, from Jiangxi, China, five-and-a-half years ago. “They don’t have dollies to play with. They play with their hands.”
It was children in Tanzania with nothing who inspired Dollies Without Borders. While working there as a visiting artist, Austin noticed that the only thing the children had to play with was one broken plastic white doll. She had been a doll maker all her life and became determined to makes dolls for children that reflected their culture and ethnicity. These dolls have been hand-delivered around the world. The Center for the Arts in Healthcare Research & Education annually takes dolls and doll kits to Rwanda.
“I really want to make dolls for as many children in developing countries as I can,” she said.
Every month, children, undergraduates, medical students and community members attend Austin’s doll-making workshops. Like an old-fashioned sewing circle, each “dolly mama” works on a doll from beginning to end — no assembly lines here.
Austin encourages people of all ages to hug the dolls and tell them stories so they’ll be full of love when children receive them. Before the dolls are delivered abroad by traveling members of UF and Shands, she brings the dolls to hospital patients to bless first.
Jennifer Paugh-Miller, P.A.-C, heard about Austin’s project while working in the dialysis unit and thought it would be a great activity for Families with Children from Asia. The organization’s members have adopted children from China, Taiwan, Vietnam and Korea, and meet monthly to socialize and celebrate Asian culture.
Paugh-Miller’s mother, Vickie, sewed the 60 doll bodies and outfits for the event. She started in August and finished the week of the event, which was held the day before the anniversary of her granddaughter’s adoption.
Austin is usually the one to prepare the dolls for workshops. She never charges people to participate; money and donations always come right before her materials run out.
“It all seems to just work out,” Austin said. “Life is like that.”