But Little Souls’ dolls aren’t massed produced Ken and Barbies. Each doll has his or her own unique personality, including their new line; Ribbon Kids — dolls born on a January day in 1995 at a children’s dollmaking session at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York.
The children, many of them HIV and AIDS victims, were given supplies and instruction on how to make dolls. They then made their own dolls as well as making up a story about each one. The children kept the original dolls and Little Souls took photographs of them back to their Ardmore, Pennsylvania plant where they were polished for the new line. A portion of the profits from the dolls goes to benefit Children’s Hope Foundation, who sponsored the doll-making session, and the 3,500 children it helps support.
“We’re one of a growing number of companies that believe in a dual bottom line,” says Colleen Charleston, co-owner along with Gretchen Wilson, of Little Souls, Inc. “It’s very important to make money, but also to use it wisely and give back to the community.”
Charleston is particularly proud of their diverse workforce which includes employees from different countries including Africa, Viet Nam and Japan and ages ranging from high school students to people in their sixties. “It’s been a wonderful treat to find out that almost anyone can make these dolls,” says Charleston, “And if you provide the right environment, and encouragement and make it a safe and nurturing place to work, then anyone can be as creative as my partner and I are.”
One of the ways Little Souls, Inc. contributes to the community is by conducting doll-making classes at area elementary schools, like A. D. Harrington Elementary School in west Philadelphia. Little Souls workers Ruth Mason, Darryl Peterson, Jennifer Wilson and director of special projects Pat Anderson all man glue guns as the third-grade students race to attach a last button or flower. By the time the kids are finished there are as many different dolls as there are kids. Some of the dolls are black, some white, some in-between. There’s yellow hair, black hair, and a few stand out with their pink or green hair.
Little Souls is also involved with Businesses for Social Responsibility, a national organization with over 800 members, and Business in Harmony, a Philadelphia based networking group. Both organizations share the purpose of having businesses become more socially responsible.
“We try hard to put our values into everything we do,” says Wilson. Besides the doll-making classes, they also speak to high-school classes for young entrepreneurs. “The students still think it’s all about money, so this is the first time they’re hearing about (social responsibility).”
Little Soul’s concept of community ranges far beyond the Philadelphia area. Several years ago Wilson was invited by Aid to Artisans to teach doll-making in Africa. From the experience sprung another line of dolls, the Kumasi Kids, made by the women at the Methodist Vocational Training Center for Girls in Kumasi, a village in Ghana, Africa. Little Souls maintains contact with the cottage industry that developed from this trip, buying the dolls which are made from whatever the women find at the marketplace, including socks, beads, and hand-printed cloth.
About the time of the fall of the Nicolae Ceausescu regime in Romania, the partners hired Kinga Scullin who had family in Ionesti, about 400 miles from Bucharest. Wondering what they could do for the area, Little Souls decided to make a Romanian doll, so they contracted with the women in Ionesti to make the doll clothing. All the work, which includes spinning the wool from their own sheep, is done in the winter or at night, after days spent in the fields, but the income from their handiwork has enabled the women to buy a tractor.
In 1993, Wilson and Charleston established the non-profit Little Souls Children’s Fund to help children locally and abroad. The profits from the Kumasi line and the Romanian line of dolls goes into the Children’s Fund which is then used to support the doll making school projects.
The company makes between 20,000 to 25,000 dolls a year and grosses several million dollars. Most of the dolls are one-of-a-kind creations intended for adults. Prices range from $40 for a sock doll to about $200 for the most popular Little Soul, and up to $600 for come collector’s dolls. Many of the dolls appeal to people who aren’t normally into doll collecting. Charleston feels that since the dolls are somewhat awkward in appearance and look like little children, they evoke an emotional response and a sense of nostalgia. “The dolls are likely to be found in a special place in the house,” notes Charleston, “like a favorite chair in the living room.”
Gretchen Wilson and Colleen Charleston are “artists of the possible” for doll-making and for business. “We’re committed to the idea that your work can be the vehicle for doing a lot of things,” Wilson says, like making the world a better place to live.
by W. Bradford Swift