A large trunk sits near Gail Harvey’s front door in Coon Rapids. It’s reserved for deliveries — mostly boxes of dolls and bears — and neatly folded handmade outfits. Each day, she empties the chest, carrying the packages to a three-stall garage in her backyard.
“It does feel like Santa’s workshop at times,” Harvey said as she walked through the space, past stacks and stacks of dolls, bears, soccer balls and piles of fabric.
This is the home of Don’t Cry ... I’m Here, Harvey’s nonprofit that has, for the past 2 ½ years, provided more than 500 newly arrived refugee and asylum-seeking children with dolls and bears that look and dress like them.
“This is about giving these kids something special that’s not a blonde, blue-eyed doll that doesn’t resemble them,” Harvey said.
Each refugee girl receives a doll tailored to her ethnicity, dressed in a hand-sewn outfit that represents the traditional clothes of the girl’s culture. The dolls also come with one other cultural dress, pajamas and a red, white and blue outfit, as well as hair accessories, a purse and play food. Boys receive a bear with culturally appropriate outfits. Teenagers receive a soccer ball and a blanket.
The gifts are packaged with an outfit for the child or teen and an age-appropriate book. Each gift comes with a handmade card made by children from local schools or Girl Scout troops. Many of the cards have crayon-scrawled notes like, “I hope I get to meet you someday” or, “I hope you like the U.S.”
“They may not get too excited about the card, but maybe they can feel for a moment that there are other kids that want to welcome them here,” Harvey said.
It’s those small details that make Don’t Cry ... I’m Here so special, said Margaret Yapp, volunteer facilitator for refugee services at Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota (LSS), one of several refugee resettlement agencies with whom Harvey partners.
“We have a lot of donations that come in, but nothing as special as these personalized gifts,” Yapp said. “The kids, especially the younger ones, just go gaga over them.”
While LSS is able to provide basic necessities for a newly arrived family, Yapp said that “to be able to give them something that goes beyond those basic needs is really valuable. It’s something to hold onto through ups and downs and unknowns.”
Harvey understands just what a doll can mean to a child. She received a new Pretty as a Picture doll when she was about 11 — two years after an especially traumatic time when she spent a few months living with other family members.
“She was very special to me, and still is,” Harvey said. “That was a period in my life when she was very needed. You build that connection with a doll that becomes kind of like a friend.”
Looking back, she said she would have loved to have a doll earlier in her life — something she could have cradled when she was confused and scared.
“There’s the injured part of me that feels that, if I can give even a little bit of hope and light to these kids, that’s so worth it,” she said.
It’s what motivates her to put eight hours a day, often seven days a week, into her nonprofit. She takes no salary.
After nearly 25 years of sewing and selling clothing for vintage dolls, Harvey was watching a PBS documentary about the refugee crisis and found herself telling her husband, “I’m starting a charity.”
She quickly found volunteers all over the country to design and sew the clothes or scour the internet for deals on dolls of different ethnicities.
The group now works with agencies across Minnesota, North Dakota and areas of Canada, providing gifts for newborns through teens.
“It has just grown and grown,” she said.
Her ultimate goal, she said, is to bring a load of the dolls and bears to a refugee camp, maybe in Kenya or Lebanon.
“Right now, though, it’s about reaching as many [children] as we can,” she said. “This has been so good for my heart.”
Yapp said Harvey’s compassion and commitment to the work should be an example for other groups hoping to help newly arriving families.
“What Don’t Cry ... I’m Here is doing is, simultaneously, acknowledging how hard it is to move to a place like the U.S., and lifting up and honoring the strength and beauty of where these families are coming from,” Yapp said.
“It’s not patronizing. It’s celebratory and extremely valuable. Other nonprofits should look to this as a model for how to serve new communities.”