A Texas woman is making sure orphans in Uganda have dolls that reflect the beauty of their dark skin

By Rachel DeSantis
August 12, 2020 12:54 PM
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Kids at Masaka Orphanage hold their dolls
Masaka Kids

Lauren Stevens still remembers the confusion she felt at a childhood birthday party when her frustrated mother took away the new Barbies she’d received as presents from classmates.

“I remember thinking, ‘Well that’s so weird, why would she do that?’ ” Stevens, who is Black, tells PEOPLE. “And she just said, ‘It’s really important for kids to play with toys and have imaginations where you get to be the center of the story, and you don’t always have to see someone that doesn’t look like you being the hero or the princess.’ I’ve remembered that my entire upbringing.”

That childhood birthday party was at the forefront of Stevens’ mind in May, when she noticed that the children at Masaka Kids, a Uganda orphanage she follows on Instagram, were playing will dolls with light skin and blonde hair, similar to the Barbies she once received.

And so Stevens, 29, left a simple comment, which — just 20 days later — snowballed into all of the girls in the orphanage having Black dolls of their own to play with, bought from a Black-owned shop out of South Africa.

Stevens, who is a State Farm recruiter based in Richardson, Texas, kicked things off by commenting on the post, “How can we donate some brown-skinned dolls?”

The orphanage immediately responded with a comment of its own thanking her for her generosity, and soon, others had hopped on board too, letting Stevens know they wanted to help her get dolls to the kids.

Lauren Stevens
Lauren Stevens

She did a quick search on Amazon for toys that would fit the bill, but deemed the available options not “very cute,” and switched gears once she realized the immense support she was receiving online could provide her the ability to expand her horizons.

“That was right around a lot of the George Floyd protests, and there was just all this focus on unemployment and people having really tough times, and I thought, ‘Well, maybe I shouldn’t go to Amazon, maybe I should try a small business,’ ” she says.

Children play at Masaka Kids
Masaka Kids

After some research on Google, Stevens came upon Malaville Dolls, a specialty shop she says stood out to her thanks to the different hair textures, skin tones, and clothing available for the dolls.

Stevens tracked down the Cape Town-based company on Instagram and connected with owner Mala Bryan, who helped ensure the dolls got to Masaka.

Though Stevens initially planned to fund the dolls out of her own pocket, after seeing the support she was receiving on social media, she began reaching out to the people who’d commented and said they wanted to help, alerting them of her plan and asking if they’d like to contribute through Venmo or PayPal.

Kids play with dolls at Masaka Kids
Masaka Kids

“People instantly started sending me money,” she says. “Like, the first person sent me $50, then one person sent me $100, then $25. And some people said, I can’t donate, but I’ll send thoughts and prayers.”

Soon, Stevens had raised around $1,000 — enough to buy dolls for all eight girls in the orphanage, plus a few extra, with about $300 or $400 left.

“I donated that directly to [Masaka], because they talked about how some of the kids needed shoes for school,” she says. “They’ve been really good stewards of it so far, and they’ve kept up with me, so everything extra I just donated to them.”

A child plays with a doll at Masaka Kids
Masaka Kids

Stevens says it’s been incredibly eye-opening to watch the amount of good that can be accomplished with one single Instagram comment, and in such a short amount of time — Masaka’s initial Instagram post was shared on May 10, and the dolls were delivered May 30.

“It’s just kind of heartwarming, not only that the kids have something to brighten their day, [which is] a nice thing that they’re going to have forever,” she says. “But also that there are just so many good people in the world. I know that sounds super cheesy, but I remember feeling like my heart was very full seeing how many strangers I had never met came together to do this.”

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Moving forward, Stevens says she’s mulling over the possibility of launching her very own nonprofit in her late father’s honor, which would be focused on providing educational funding for students of all ages.

She’s also ready to keep doing good, as she and the rest of her colleagues continue the company’s challenge to each complete 100 Acts of Good by 2022, State Farm's 100th anniversary.

“Employees like Lauren are perfect examples of doing acts of service for others wherever they see,” a spokesperson for State Farm says. “It’s incredible that she saw an opportunity where she could help and maximized her efforts with the help of others through social media.”