Karis Dolls help kids cope with traumatic family situations

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When a member of India Gill’s church passed away, she wanted to help his family through the grieving process. While the Case Western Reserve University Ph.D. student was saddened by the loss of her friend, she knew his three young kids had it far worse. The situation sparked an idea.

“I became close with his wife, talking to her about how you have these tough conversations about family transitions now that your children have to deal with grieving their father,” Gill says. “I wanted to create something that could soothe kids: A doll.”

<span class="content-image-text">Karis Dolls, Kayla</span>Karis Dolls, KaylaWith help from grants and coaching she received as the winner of Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network (MAGNET)’s 2018 MSPIRE award, the first-time entrepreneur got to work creating the Karis Doll Collection and released her first doll, Kayla, last November.

Like American Girl dolls, each doll has a name and comes paired with an interactive storybook (written by Gill and illustrated by Madiha Yearwood).

The similarities to American Girl end there though. The 18-inch, stuffed Karis dolls with embroidered features and realistic hair encompass a variety of ethnicities and cultures, and each book-doll pair addresses a difficult family situation.

For example, Kayla’s story is that she is learning to navigate a blended family after her parents’ divorce. The hope is that children will recognize themselves in the dolls and realize they’re not alone in what they’re experiencing. “There's definitely a place for Disney princesses,” explains Gill. “We love the happily-ever-after stories, but not every child has that story.”

The benefits have the potential to go far beyond childhood, too. Thanks to her background in public health—Gill has a master’s degree in public health from Columbia University and has worked on health initiatives with congresswoman Marcia Fudge—she learned that exposure to trauma as a child can have lasting results.

<span class="content-image-text">Each doll has a name and comes paired with an interactive storybook</span>Each doll has a name and comes paired with an interactive storybookStudies have shown correlations between kids who are exposed to divorce, violence or neglect and incidences of chronic illness as adults, Gill says. “Maybe with Karis Dolls they'll be able to build resiliency and be able to buffer some of the stress that they're receiving or anxiety from child trauma.”

Gill hopes to release the collection’s second doll later this year and possibly add customizable dolls at some point. One thing she knows for sure: she intends for the dolls to explore a variety of stories centering on topics like LGBTQ+ families, adoption, military deployment, and, of course, grief.

“The definition of family has changed,” Gill explains. “We're no longer the stereotypical one mom, one dad, two kids [family]. That’s not what families are anymore. It's definitely evolved. I think the toys that are available in the marketplace also need to evolve.”

Ilona Westfall
Ilona Westfall

About the Author: Ilona Westfall

Ilona Westfall is a Cleveland-based freelance writer. When she's not penning articles for a variety of Ohio publications, she's roller skating with Burning River Roller Derby, rolling d20s with her D&D group, or getting muddy in the woods. Follow her on twitter @IlonaWestfall.