April 25, 2013 at 12:09 PM ET
Leave it to a child to articulate a need just perfectly.
Nine-year-old Hannah Feda was flipping through a girls' magazine when she spotted a doll that looked just like her little sister, but couldn’t find one that resembled her.
Born with Down syndrome, Hannah wanted a toy companion with almond-shaped eyes like hers and a zipper-like scar on her chest, just like the one she has after an operation to mend three holes in her heart.
“There’s no doll that looks like me and none of them have surgery,” she complained to her mother.
So Connie Feda searched for a doll with Down syndrome features, only to discover she didn’t like what she found.
“I think Hannah is a beautiful little thing,” Feda, a mother of six, told TODAY Moms.
“I see a sparkle in her eye and I see a lot of imp, and I didn’t see that in those dolls. I saw a very detailed, stereotypical perhaps, medical diagnosis stamped in plastic.”
A business idea was born: why not create a whole new set of dolls for kids just like Hannah? One in every 691 babies in the United States is born with Down syndrome, caused by an extra chromosome that changes the body’s and brain’s normal development, according to the CDC.
Four years later, Hannah’s wish is a reality, with the toys now available for pre-order on Feda’s website, Dolls for Downs. The first delivery is scheduled for the end of May.
Working from her home in suburban Pittsburgh and investing $15,000 of her own money, Feda immersed herself in the long process of coming up with a prototype.
First, she collected hundreds of photos of kids with Down syndrome from families in her online support groups to use as inspiration for the doll’s features. Then, she looked for a doll sculptor who would understand her mission, finding Karen Scott, a Michigan artist. The two began working on a model last summer.
Hannah was there every step of the way.
“She is very self-aware, she knows what she looks like. So even though she’s not always able to articulate things, she’s been very helpful in this whole process of designing the doll – to tell us if something is right or not right,” Feda, 50, said.
“When we were working on the hands, she put up her hand to see how close it came to her hand. She has the cute little pinky curl and the pudgy little fingers.”
The goal was to make a doll that looked like a child with Down syndrome but without any one feature being so overwhelming that the toy didn’t look like a person, she added.
The final product featured common Down syndrome markers such as the almond-shaped eyes, a flatter face, a pinky finger that curls a bit, a “sandal gap” between the toes, and slightly different leg and arm proportions.
Then, there’s the chest scar.
About half of all infants born with Down syndrome have a heart defect, according to the National Down Syndrome Society. Hannah had open heart surgery at 13 months and it was important to her to have a doll that had the same kind of scar that runs down her chest.
You can order the toy with or without a chest scar. More than half of the 500 families who have pre-ordered opted for dolls with the scar, Feda said.
Meanwhile, the final product is getting a big thumbs-up from her most important customer.
“The doll is beautiful and I really love her,” Hannah told TODAY Moms. Yes, the doll looks like her, she said.
When asked about what she likes most about the toy, she was quick to answer.
“The scar and the love sign,” Hannah said, referring to the dolls' left hand, which is shaped to say “I love you” in sign language.
The dolls come in both girl and boy versions, and sport different hairstyles and skin tones. Their clothing incorporates ties, buckles and buttons designed to build the fine motor skills of kids with Down syndrome.
Feda’s biggest wish now is for her creation to provide comfort and joy to kids like Hannah.
“I hope that they just get a friend out of it,” Feda said.