It’s an experience all too familiar to Sarah Carmichael Parson, a Brigham Young University graduate and Cedar Hills resident.
She turns on the news, devastated at what she sees: innocent children who are victims of war, disasters on the other side of the planet, refugee camps with abysmal living conditions. She feels a personal responsibility to do something to help.
Parson, who has dedicated her life to service and humanitarian work, experienced this scenario in 2004 when a tsunami in Asia left 117,000 dead and millions struggling. She experienced it in 2015 when over a million people had to leave their homes in a refugee crisis. Most recently, she experienced it when she learned about the families who have been separated at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Like it has in the past, her desire to help led to action. That’s why last week Parson joined with a group of friends to package and send 1,229 handmade stuffed dolls and teddy bears to the children who have been separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.
This shipment is just one of several Parson manages each year. In 2015, Parson created Dolls of Hope, which has teamed up with people around the state, country and world to send over 9,600 handmade, cuddly stuffed toys to children in need all over the globe.
‘Made with love’
It was around 9 p.m. on June 21 when Parson could slip away from her children long enough to go to a friend’s house and start packaging the toys for the migrant children who are detained without their parents.
“With everything that’s been going on at the border, it’s just pulled at everyone’s heartstrings,” said Parson, a mother of five kids under the age of 10. “It’s just unimaginable that these little kids are taken away from their families.”
According to the Department of Homeland Security, 2,053 separated minors are housed at government facilities as of June 20.
Parson, along with four other women, spent almost three hours packaging the stuffed dolls and bears. Parson said she was shocked when they filled 10 large boxes and totaled up the final number of toys, which exceeded her goal of 1,000.
Because Dolls of Hope is an ongoing project, people and groups are constantly sending toys to Parson, who provides the sewing patterns online. In April, Parson sent 3,000 dolls and bears to children around the world, and the supply replenished fast enough to send the large shipment to the migrant children last week.
“I wish I could hug all the kids and I can’t, but they can hug the doll over there that we send to them, and that gives me a little bit of comfort,” Parson said, fighting back tears. “And hopefully it gives them some comfort.”
Several groups and people contributed to the toy shipment to the separated migrant families, including Helen Gurr, a big supporter of Dolls of Hope. Gurr donates dolls regularly and even delivered dolls and bears personally to children in Bangladesh.
“Every time I make a bear, it makes me feel like I’m healing,” Gurr told the Deseret News. “I’m healing inside myself, because these situations should not exist, and I can’t make them not exist, but I can heal. I can sleep better at night. And I know that the children will sleep better holding something that was made with love.”
‘The joys of serving’
Parson said she started Dolls of Hope after feeling she needed to do more to help during the refugee crisis in 2016. Someone who volunteered at a refugee camp offhandedly mentioned to Parson that the kids played with scorpions, sticks and trash because they didn’t have any toys.
A week later, Parson was still thinking about how she could help the children at the camp when she was driving in the car with her own children. She thought about how much her kids loved their stuffed animals, and a lightbulb went off.
“My kids haven't been through any trauma at all but their stuffed animals bring them lots of comfort and lots of joy,” Parson said. “I had the thought, ‘You can make dolls for the kids at this camp, and you can find people who can help you.’”
Parson, who received her master’s degree from BYU in comparative and international development education, had started a nonprofit before, an experience that gave her the experience and confidence she needed to start Dolls of Hope.
People and groups all over Utah have been more than willing to help Parson. Dolls of Hope is growing fast — in its first year, it donated 450 dolls and bears. In 2017, the number rose to 3,000, which has already been surpassed by the 5,000 donations so far in 2018.
Although Dolls of Hope started to make dolls and bears for one refugee camp in Greece, it now donates to children in distress all over the world, whether they’re foster children in Utah, refugees in Bangladesh or migrant children separated from their families.
Just as diverse as the children who receive the donations are the hands that create them. At first, donations came from local families, Boy Scouts, companies and church groups. But about a year and a half ago, Parson got a call from a refugee migrant center in Athens, Greece, asking if they could use her patterns to create a sewing corner for women in refugee camps.
“I was ecstatic,” Parson remembered. “These women, who have been through such traumatic experiences, can also have that healing experience, and they can experience the joys of serving other people, making dolls and bears.”
The Dolls of Hope sewing center started at the center in Athens, and when word spread, a volunteer from Lifting Hands International asked Parson if they could set up a similar project at a refugee center in Serres, Greece.
In February, Cedar Hills resident and Dolls of Hope volunteer Jennie White traveled to Greece for two weeks with her sister, Merri-Lu Jackman, to set up the Dolls of Hope sewing center in Serres. The sisters filled their suitcases with hand-cranked sewing machines, fabric and durable patterns made from heavy plastic.
"My sister and I went over with ... the thought that creating and serving brings hope and healing," Jackman said. "You could see that in these women’s faces as they got a little more light in their eyes and they were feeling a little more hopeful that they were able to do something for someone else."
In March, just a month after White and Jackman traveled to create the sewing center in Serres, Lifting Hands International delivered 75 dolls and bears made by Yazidi refugees in Serres to Yazidi children who were still living in Iraq.
"It was important to them and they understood that these were going back to Iraq to their people. It just made them more intent on working fast and working hard," White said. "Just watching them do it was amazing."
'An instrument in his hands'
With Dolls of Hope and five young children under her supervision, Parson’s days are busy. To fill the free time she doesn’t have, she also volunteers with Operation Underground Railroad and supports local refugee families.
Parson, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, strongly believes humanitarian work is part of God's plan for her, which is one of the reasons she invests so much time in helping others.
“I just really feel like the Lord led me where I needed to be to be an instrument in his hands because he had a plan for me,” Parson said. “I’m just doing the best to juggle all the things in my life and all the things that he’s asked me to do. He magnifies my efforts every day, and that’s why I’m able to do what I do.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that 1,263 stuffed toys were donated to migrant children. The correct number is 1,229. It also reported that Dolls of Hope is a nonprofit. The organization is only in the process of becoming a nonprofit.