The handmade dolls feature birthmarks, surgical scars, jaw alignment issues, and facial and cranial anomalies.

When 17-year-old Ariella Pacheco was a kid, her parents let her pick out any doll she wanted. She chose an American Girl doll named Skye that looked just like her. “She had dark brown hair, eyes, and skin just like me,” says Pacheo. “I liked to imagine that she also talked and thought like me. My cousin and I would lose track of time letting our imaginations run wild as we took our dolls out on grand adventures. I felt a deep connection looking into my doll’s face and seeing a glimpse of myself.”


It’s natural for children to be drawn to dolls that look like them, and while we are (finally) starting to see dolls on toy store shelves that come from a variety of races and cultures, there is still a glaring lack of representation when it comes to children with medical conditions.

Knowing just how important making that very personal connection is, Pacheco had an idea for her service project at her high school in San Diego. Her goal: To design and sew unique dolls to donate to children with these rare medical conditions.

Pacheco was inspired by Amy Jandrisevits’s “A Doll Like Me,” a non-profit organization that creates and sews look-alike dolls for children with unique physical characteristics. To find the kids she hoped to create unique dolls for, Pacheco partnered with Fresh Start Surgical Gifts in Carlsbad, Calif., a charitable organization that provides reconstructive surgery free of charge to children whose families can’t afford it or whose insurance doesn’t cover cosmetic surgical procedures.

“Ariella reached out to me in January of this year and explained that she was looking for a children’s charity to partner with,” says Michelle Pius, chief development officer at Fresh Start Surgical Gifts. “She had researched us and was really taken with the way we transform the lives of children with physical and cosmetic deformities. After she outlined her project, I felt a lot of confidence in her ability to see it through.”

Pius recommended four participants—one with a port-wine birthmark, another with surgical scars, one with jaw alignment issues, and one with facial and cranial anomalies—and with that, the project was born. After watching a long series of doll-making tutorials on YouTube, Pacheco designed her own patterns and figured out how to recreate the children’s differences through a long series of trial and error.

Her dolls had a huge impact on not only the children who received the dolls, but people outside of Fresh Start, some of whom even contacted the organization to offer to make dolls for other patients.

“Our entire team was very impressed with Ariella and the time and effort she put into making each doll special,” says Pius. “She really captured the spirit of the child without making their condition the focus of the doll and embraced our larger mission that in addition to correcting a medical condition we are also concerned with the child as a whole. Receiving a doll made especially for them helps erase that feeling of being less than.”

Credit: Gilda Adler

The feedback Pacheco received was so much more than she could have expected. “I did this project to give back and provide the children with a doll they might otherwise not have had," she says. "I never thought the story would spread to so many people. The best part is that more children at Fresh Start have been asking for dolls. To know that they want to see themselves in a doll makes me so happy and reminded me of the impact seeing yourself in a doll can have.” 

Although there are promising steps being taken, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done regarding the mass-produced dolls on store shelves. Pacheco says she hopes that her project starts a narrative for the children who are excluded in mainstream culture. 

“It means so much for me to be able to give a lookalike doll to children who don’t see themselves reflected in dolls, books, and movies today," Pacheco says. "I hope that others hear about this project and grow inspired to make lookalike dolls for children with unique characteristics, especially doll manufacturers. Wouldn’t it be amazing if they provided opportunities for kids to design their own specialized dolls?” 

In the future, Pacheco says she wishes for more people to speak up for increased representation of physical differences in all forms of media. “I want them to see their beautifully unique selves in a different light.”