Robinson mom's search for Down syndrome doll turns into growing business



Finally, Hannah Feda has a doll that looks like her.

Hannah, a 13-year-old who lives with her family in Robinson, has Down syndrome. The genetic condition causes developmental delays and often results in certain defining physical features, such as a flattened facial profile, smaller, low-set ears and upward slanting eyes.

Her mother, Connie, described the day when Hannah, flipping through a doll magazine, spotted a toy with long brown hair and light brown eyes. It looked like her younger sister Theresa, now 10, Hannah said. But, as she continued flipping through the magazine, she said:

Robinson mother creates dolls for children with Down syndrome

Connie Feda started Dolls for Downs, a company that creates dolls for children with Down syndrome. ( Video by Andrew Rush; 3/28/2013)

"There's no doll that looks like me."

So Mrs. Feda, the mother of six children ranging in age from 10 to 25, set out looking for a doll that looked like Hannah. She looked for dolls that had Down syndrome, and for dolls that had a surgical scar on her chest, as Hannah does from surgery she received at 13 months to repair three holes in her heart.

"Nobody had any dolls that were at all attractive," said Mrs. Feda, 49. "So we said, 'Hey, let's just make one.'"

Four years later, they've done that, in a bigger way than they'd imagined. Mrs. Feda, who set out to make one doll, instead has founded a business. She worked with a doll sculptor in Michigan and a manufacturer in China to design 16 male and female versions of dolls with Down syndrome's physical characteristics, in a variety of eye and hair and skin colors.

The dolls -- available now at dollsfordowns.org and starting May 1 at extraspecialdolls.com -- are already in high demand, with more than 200 pre-orders placed since March 1 for the 18-inch-tall dolls, which start at $75 each and will begin shipping May 1. The dolls will be made of vinyl, and will have the option of coming with plastic clothes, both characteristics that will facilitate their use in a sterile hospital setting. The clothing will also have large buttons and be easy to put on and take off the doll, since children with Down syndrome tend to have weak muscle tone.

Requests for the dolls have come from around the world, Mrs. Feda said. And not just from parents of children with Down syndrome. The first order came from a first grader in Kansas who had a friend with Down syndrome. She wanted her dolls to have a similar friend, Mrs. Feda said.

"When I got this email, I bawled my eyes out," she said, describing it as a sign they were on the right track.

There have been dolls made for children with Down syndrome in the past, but none has received as much attention as the Feda family's dolls, said Julie B. Cevallos, vice president of marketing for the National Down Syndrome Society in New York, in an emailed statement.

"Any doll or toy that builds confidence and is fun for a child with Down syndrome is great!" she said.

Two porcelain prototypes for the dolls arrived at the Feda household last week. Matty, the boy doll, has short blond hair and, on his chest, he has a scar that looks like the one Hannah has from her surgery. Hannah, the girl doll, has dark hair just like Hannah, the girl. The doll has several of the features of Down syndrome -- a crease on her palms, a "sandal gap," between her big and second toes and a flattened facial profile.

"I think, when people look at it, they see a beautiful doll," Mrs. Feda said. "And when I look at my daughter, I see a beautiful girl."

Children with Down syndrome are aware that they look different from children without it, said Karen Pool, general manager for TFH USA Special Needs Toys, based in West Deer. Her company is excited to sell Mrs. Feda's dolls.

"It just gives them an identifier, that they have something that looks like them, that they can play with, and be proud of and happy and carry around," she said.

Ken Feda described his wife's work as "pioneering." Mrs. Feda eventually plans to create dolls for children with autism, in wheelchairs or who have leukemia.

Kishore Vellody, medical director for the Down Syndrome Center of Western Pennsylvania at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, said he thinks what Mrs. Feda is doing is "a great idea."

"We want to make sure that people know that kids with Down syndrome are out there, and that they're not something to be afraid of or something to make fun of," he said. "They're actually just like your own kids." He thinks the dolls could push that message into the mainstream population.

Right now, the Hannah doll has made her home in Hannah's house. Last week, when the doll prototypes arrived, Mrs. Feda said she teared up.

"Nothing could prepare me for how breathtakingly beautiful this doll is, top to bottom, when I took her out of the box," she said.

The doll, in a patterned shirt and bright yellow pants, has fingers arranged to convey a message in sign language, which children with Down syndrome are often taught as a way of communicating. "I love you," her sign said.

Hannah, with her mother beside her, leaned over the table and spoke softly to the doll.

"I love you, too."

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Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com. This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To log in or subscribe, go to: http://press.post-gazette.com/ First Published March 28, 2013 8:45 PM


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