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Tajikistan: U.S. Teens Create Dolls For Orphans

Bellingham, Wash., 26 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Teen-agers in this northwest corner of the United States heard about a lack of toys among youngsters placed in Tajikistan's state-run boarding schools and are responding by helping make softly huggable dolls. Several hundred of the homemade playthings have been sent already, and more are on the way.

This story of people helping people begins nearly two years ago with a letter from an American woman working in Tajikistan to her parents in Lynden, Washington, a town of about 5,000 inhabitants a few kilometers from the U.S. border with Canada.

In her letter to Allen and VerLee Meenk, their daughter Laura spoke of the youngsters she encountered in state-run institutions. Some of them, she wrote, are orphans. Others were abandoned or had been removed from their parents. Still others are physically or mentally disabled.

Because of a lack of resources in the newly independent state, many of these children have little more than a change of clothes and few if any toys to relieve boredom and develop their creativity and social skills.

That letter made the rounds of the small American community. The Meenks' other grown daughter, Marilyn Bingman, and two of her mother's friends decided to do something about these shortcomings. The result was a first batch of 35 dolls.

Bingman told a friend, Anne Culbertson, who in turn showed the letter to Pam Knudsen, a skilled seamstress who was teaching Culbertson's daughter to sew. Knudsen had the idea of recruiting other girls to learn sewing by making more dolls for Tajikistan.

Culbertson recalled that her only specification for the dolls was to make them "huggable."

The eventual "sewing circle," comprising up to eight girls, produced 300 dolls over about a year. And work on dolls continues -- along with efforts to generate donations of money and material to produce still more toys. Culbertson says "my goal is another thousand."

To accomplish that, she and Knudsen and the Meenks talked to a local newspaper, The Bellingham Herald, issuing a call, as the newspaper story said, "to help provide dolls, teddy bears or soccer balls to children in Tajikistan."

Culbertson told our correspondent that the article resulted in a number of offers of help. She says the expanding grass-roots effort now hopes to obtain a shipping container to collect clothing and medical supplies "and other stuff" for Tajik children.

As she told the local paper, reflecting on the needs of the Tajik children: "It's such a treasure for us to be doing this."

Meanwhile, VerLee Meenk is looking forward to a Christmas reunion next month with her daughter Laura who, she says, doesn't yet know of the local publicity about the dolls project to help children in a country so far from her home.

But residents of Whatcom County, which includes the cities of Lynden and Bellingham, are becoming increasingly familiar with people of the former Soviet Union. Since the end of the Cold War, an estimated 1,500 refugees from there -- though mostly from Russia and Ukraine -- now make their homes in this are of the United States.