During the three years that Amy Jandrisevits worked as a pediatric hospital social worker, she often used dolls to show children what would happen during their surgeries or treatment. The dolls also helped children act out their emotions and feel more secure.
But there was one part of it that bothered Jandrisevits.
While young patients at the hospital were often facing amputations, had severe skin burns or had lost their hair to chemotherapy treatments, the dolls she handed to the children always had all their limbs, plus flawless skin and shiny, thick hair.
“What about the girl with limb or hand differences or the boy with a large birthmark on his face?” Jandrisevits asked. “It was always in the back of my mind that they deserved to have a doll that looked like them.”
In 2015, about 14 years after leaving her job at California’s Long Beach Memorial Hospital, Jandrisevits put her idea into motion. It came about by happenstance.
The 45-year-old mother of three, who has always enjoyed sewing and now lives in New Berlin, Wis., had stitched together a batch of sports- and career-themed rag dolls just for fun. When a friend asked if she’d create a doll for her 10-year-old, who identifies as a boy, Jandrisevits made her a doll with short green hair and a Ninja Turtle jumper, and the friend put a photo of it on her Facebook page. As Jandrisevits looked through the comments on the page, she saw a message from a woman hoping to find a doll for her daughter, who’d recently had her leg amputated.
"Right then, I knew I had to help her," she said.
Jandrisevits contacted the woman just before Christmas in 2015, learned some details about her daughter and made her a doll with one shortened leg. After that, she was motivated to start A Doll Like Me, creating cloth dolls for children with physical differences. By February 2016, she had more than 200 back orders on her Facebook page from parents around the world, all hoping to find dolls that their children could relate to.
"Parents are desperate to find a doll that looks like their child," Jandrisevits said.
With her dolls, she said, she’s hoping to change the narrative for these children to make them feel less different, more included. “Somebody loves them as much as I love my kids,” she said. “And somebody wants people to see the same beauty in their children that they do.”
Although Jandrisevits’s dolls typically sell for about $100, they’re free for families that can’t afford them, thanks to a GoFundMe account that has brought in more than $38,000. After making more than 300 dolls herself, Jandrisevits is often asked why she doesn’t hire some help.
"I want this to be a personal experience for each parent and child, not a factory experience," she said. "I'm really touched that these families have allowed me into something that some people judge and criticize. The parents have led me into a private and often painful part of their lives."
They include parents such as Joy Cameron. A single mom from Columbia, S.C., Cameron has three special needs sons, including Keagan, 2, who was born with a rare skin condition called giant congenital nevus. The disorder gave Keagan so many dark birthmarks that family and friends affectionately call him “Chocolate Chip Cookie.”
"Most people haven't seen another child like him, and lots of questions are generated by children and adults," Cameron, 42, said. "I thought that having a doll like him would be a great conversation starter and an opportunity to teach others — even those in the medical field who have no idea what they're seeing when they look at him and his adorable spots."
On a substitute teacher’s salary, Cameron couldn’t afford to buy a doll for Keagan. But Jandrisevits was happy to donate one. “Chip” now accompanies Keagan everywhere he goes, from doctor visits and play dates to story time before bed, providing her son with constant comfort, Cameron said.
"To be gifted with this doll was an incredible feeling," she said. "Amy didn't just sit down and randomly put dots on the doll — she took the time to match Keagan's many spots."
Keagan’s new doll also has given her a boost to celebrate, rather than hide, her son’s differences. “That’s the message I want Keagan to grow up with," she said.
Brian Grassi, a firefighter from Coventry, R.I., said he and his wife, Sarah Grassi, “wept like a baby” when a doll for their daughter, Emma, now almost 5 months old, arrived last year, shortly before her October birth. The Grassis had learned through ultrasound that a piece of fibrous tissue was wrapped around Emma’s left lower arm, stunting the growth in her arm and hand.
When Brian Grassi, 43, heard about A Doll Like Me online, he ordered one for Emma and was surprised to learn that it was already paid for. Jandrisevits told him that a donor had bought their doll through her GoFundMe account, in memory of a deceased loved one.
After the Grassis unwrapped Emma’s doll, they hugged the doll between them. Then they “paid it forward” and donated money for another child’s lookalike doll.
"Emma is still a little young to appreciate how wonderful it will be to have a doll that has the same limb difference,” Brian Grassi said. “But Sarah and I already know how wonderful this doll is.”
Jandrisevits said she is often able to surprise children with one of her custom-made dolls, thanks to friends, neighbors and Facebook followers who alert her to kids in need. Last summer, when she heard from a friend that a boy in her town had been hospitalized with severe seizures caused by the genetic disorder Angelman Syndrome, she immediately sat down at her sewing machine and spent the next six hours making him a doll.
The boy, Chase Cefalu, 7, is nonverbal, can’t feed himself and requires round-the-clock care. When his mother, Stacy Cefalu, handed him a doll that had the same straight blond hair and bright brown eyes that he did, Chase closely studied its face, then hugged the doll close, kissing it repeatedly.
“I felt my heart bursting,” Cefalu recalled. “The doll is more than just a doll for Chase. It’s a way for us to interact with him, using the doll to teach life skills: Be gentle, give hugs, change clothes, brush teeth. Chase can’t do these things independently, but he loves to help his doll do them.”
Jandrisevits, who sews at a dining room table that is covered with colorful fabric, ribbons and pins, said that when she is having difficulty replicating a child’s appearance on cotton fabric, she remembers something that her 14-year-old son, Elijah, once told her.
She was having trouble depicting a birthmark that traveled up the arm of a little girl.
“I said, ‘I’m not sure I can make this doll,’ ” Jandrisevits said. “And my son said, ‘If you think it’s hard to make, imagine what it’s like for that girl to explain her birthmark, day in and day out.’ ”
Jandrisevits took up the challenge and finally completed an exact replica. She knew she had nailed it — and that’s what keeps her making the next one and the next one.
"Every single doll tells a story of a little person,” she said.
Correction: This story has been updated to delete the reference of “daughter” for a 10-year-old who identifies as a boy.