Arts Craft Arts

Spotlight On: Hands & Heart Doll Project


Photo by David Ellsworth

Many Hands, One Heart

By Emma Castleberry

The Hands & Heart Doll Project grew out of Reverend Wendy Ellsworth’s work with the Unity Women’s Village in Archers Post, Kenya. Since 2003, Ellsworth, who is a nationally recognized seed bead artist herself, has been working with these women to support their bead work as a path to financial independence. In 2021, Ellsworth asked a doll maker to design a doll to diversify the craft inventory sold by the women through the Samburu Youth Education Fund. The doll’s design reflects the culture of the village in her clothing and beaded collar.

Not only did the dolls function as an economic tool for the women who made and sold them but they also provided remarkable outcomes for the village’s children. “Dolls have a soothing impact on a child because a child will often use a doll as a safe way to express his or her compassion and empathy,” says Ellsworth, who worked as a teaching assistant in a classroom for social and emotional development at the high school level for five years. “A doll can also be a safe way for a child to express fears around abandonment, relocation and resettlement.”

Photo by David Ellsworth

Ellsworth has seen this impact directly in the Kenyan children who have received these dolls. “For some of the Maasai and Samburu children who received dolls, it’s the first doll they have ever had and they immediately connect in a loving way with them,” she says, “imitating what mothers do to their babies by wanting to feed them, dress them, sing to them and share them with their friends.”

The Maasai Elder Phillip Titen Parsitau reported these behaviors to Ellsworth after his daughter Sakai was given a doll from the project. “Now Sakai is like a small celebrity in our village because of her doll,” he says. “The doll has brought her so many friends who want to enjoy the experience of holding a doll. This gift has made Sakai and her friends more happy, interactive and playful.”

Recently, Ellsworth learned that Afghan refugee families would be coming to Buncombe County through Lutheran Services Carolinas. She and Micah Jean Masey organized a Circle of Welcome, a Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) initiative designed to engage community groups in the successful integration of refugees, in Weaverville. Learning that a large portion of the incoming refugees would be under the age of 10, Ellsworth decided to repurpose the Hands & Heart Doll Project for the Circle of Welcome.

“Refugee children are often traumatized by having to leave their country of origin under dire circumstances,” Ellsworth says. “I imagine that some of the Afghan refugee children coming into our community will have feelings of abandonment, dislocation, trauma and anxiety, and I believe it’s possible that having a doll from the Hands & Heart Project will help them deal with these deep-seated emotions. I also believe that this holds true for any child in crisis or need.”

Ellsworth offers the pattern for the doll for free online so anyone can make the dolls for refugees arriving in their community. The pattern requires some sewing skill but can be completed without a sewing machine. “The mission of the Hands & Heart Doll Project is to give refugee children and children in need handmade dolls that will show them that compassionate people care about them and that they are not alone in the world,” says Ellsworth. “A handmade doll can help alleviate a child’s anxiety and provides something soft and cuddly to hold and love. As an Interfaith Minister, I believe that love is the greatest positive force for change in the world and dolls made with hands and heart reflect this belief.”

For more information about the project, visit For more information on how you can connect with and support refugee families in your community, contact Amy Dix, Asheville’s outreach coordinator for Lutheran Services Carolinas, at

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