NORTH BENNINGTON — Before the coronavirus pandemic limited travel, a local nonprofit group sent a hundred dolls to children at a refugee camp on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Created by the nonprofit itself, Vermont Arts Exchange, the dolls are designed to provide comfort to children in crisis. The dolls are made of fabric in a variety of colors and textures. They depict both human and animal figures. And each carries a card with a message of caring. VAE has named them "TLC Dolls," which stand for tender loving care.
Since 2013, the dolls have been given to 300 children in Vermont through local organizations like the Bennington County Child Advocacy Center, Southwestern Vermont Medical Center's Emergency Department and United Counseling Services.
The TLC Dolls distributed at the refugee camp in the Mexican city of Matamoros in late February were the first given outside Vermont.
Vermont Arts Exchange wanted to do something uplifting for the migrant children as they waited with their families for the U.S. immigration courts to hear their cases.
"Children from other countries being held just on the other side of the border just bothered me," VAE Executive Director Matthew Perry said. "It would be a good thing if we can help. There's no reason why we couldn't take some of the dolls we were making and move them beyond the Vermont border."
A chain of individuals and organizations enabled the dolls to leave North Bennington and make their way 2,000 miles south.
Perry said he reached out to the Texas Commission on the Arts about his group's plan to donate dolls to migrant children. The arts commission put him in touch with Rev. Sarah de la Fuente, of the Central Presbyterian Church in Austin, who then introduced him to Rev. Meagan Ludwig, another pastor based near the Mexican border.
"Meagan facilitated that connection for the dolls' final stop into the arms of hurting children," De la Fuente told the Banner in an email, adding that she facilitates similar requests every week.
The National Hanger Company, a hanger manufactuer in North Bennington, paid for the dolls' shipment to Texas — along with books donated by local author Sandra Magsamen.
Angry Tias and Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley, a group of women who advocate for the rights of asylum seekers, carried the dolls and books into the refugee camp. On Feb. 27 and 29, members of the group, along with students from the University of Texas, distributed the items to boys and girls around 4-10 years old. They sent pictures back to Vermont.
In the first group of recipients, the children jumped and grabbed for the dolls since they don't often get presents at the camp, said Joyce Hamilton, a member of Angry Tias and Abuelas.
In the second group, the children — many of whom had been in the camp longer — appeared subdued even after they were given the dolls, Hamilton said in a phone interview. Some children had apparently been in the camp for as long as eight months.
"They seemed to want the dolls, but when the camera was on them initially, I realized you just see this sadness in their eyes," she said. "They've really had a rough road of it."
People at the Matamoros Camp largely come from Central American countries such as Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua, as well as Cuba, Venezuela and Mexico.
Since the novel coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., some migrants have headed down Mexico and others have returned home, Hamilton said. But many remained at the camp even as some people have been reported to show symptoms of COVID-19.
"The vast majority have no possibility of returning home to the dangers that compelled them to leave, and are still in the encampment hoping to continue their asylum claim process," she said in an email in early April.
Meanwhile, once the coronavirus threats abate and Vermont Arts Exchange can resume production of the dolls, Perry said he wants to also send dolls to migrant children in U.S. detention centers.
This story was updated on April 23.
Contact Tiffany Tan at email@example.com, @tiffgtan on Twitter or 802-447-7567 ext. 122.