UNICEF’s “Adopt a Doll, Save a Child” project celebrates 15 years in the Czech Republic

Photo: archive of Jesenice elementary school

“Adopt a Doll, Save a life” is a project launched by the Czech branch of UNICEF fifteen years ago. Over that time it has helped to save the lives of some 30,000 children. Ahead of the Christmas holidays the Czech mission to the United Nations and the Czech branch of UNICEF brought the project to New York, organizing a charity auction at the National Bohemian Hall. I asked the head of the Czech branch of UNICEF Pavla Gomba to tell me more about the event and the project itself.

Pavla Gomba,  photo: Alžběta Švarcová
“The objective of this exhibition was to present 15 years of the „Adopt a Doll, Save a Child“ project in the Czech Republic. The project is based on volunteers, children, senior people but also designers and artists who make rag dolls. Each doll has a birth certificate and we sell these dolls for the cost of immunization of one child. We brought this project to the Czech Republic fifteen years ago from our Italian colleagues and since then the project has expanded. We wanted to present the best dolls made by Czech artists and designers in New York.”

I believe you asked a number of Czech celebrities to make dolls especially for this exhibition. Who were they and what kind of dolls did they make?

“Each doll is original and is very different –made with different techniques and different materials. We had a few dolls made by Czech fashion designers for example Liběna Rochová, Tatana Kovaříková but also glass designers such as Rony Plesl or the well-known Czech architect Eva Jiřičná and violinist Pavel Sporcl, to name just a few. We had a great variety of dolls, professionally made dolls but also dolls made by artists whom we do not associate with visual arts.”

I understand that Mrs. Chatardova, the head of the Czech mission at the UN, also made one. Was it hard to convince her?

“Well, to be fair, she made the doll with her husband who is also an artist. It was a very nice, golden doll, very original and it got sold for the highest price in the silent auction that we organized there. I think it was auctioned for 600 dollars.”

How much money did you make?

“Well, the main objective of this event was not to raise funds, but of course we are always eager to because we want to support our immunization programmes globally and we raised close to 3,000 dollars which is not at all bad.”

And how was the project itself received in New York?

“That was the second objective of this project –to present it in the States and to encourage Czech expats and members of the diplomatic community to get involved and hopefully next year there will be more dolls born in the US in support of UNICEF. We would also like to engage primary schools and different personalities in this project.”

How many children have these dolls helped over the past 15 years? How many lives have they saved and where?

Photo: archive of Jesenice elementary school
“Well, since we brought the project to the Czech Republic more than 30,000 dolls have been born here so we can say that we have saved 30,000 lives thanks to immunization. UNICEF has two types of immunization projects – one is emergency vaccination in countries hit by natural disasters or armed conflicts, for example Syria or South Sudan and then we have regular immunization days which we support in countries that do not have a developed health infrastructure –these are some of the poorest countries in the world.”

Who makes these dolls in the Czech Republic? How has the public responded to your appeal?

“The project has grown enormously, much more than we expected at the outset. And I would say that some 50 percent of dolls are made by primary school children –more than 100 schools are involved in the project. But we also have a lot of volunteers from the general public. I would say that the prettiest dolls come from old age homes and are sometimes accompanied by very nice letters, for example grandmothers who make dolls and remember their own childhood write very moving letters. And I think this is the additional benefit of this project – the fact that we connect people.”

“When we receive a doll and sell it, either in our store or online, we always ask the person who buys the doll to send a message to the author that the doll has a new home and another child has been saved. And we know that people who have been linked by this project sometimes stay in touch, they continue to communicate with each other so I would say that this project connects people better than Facebook.”

To what do you ascribe the success of this project – it is not many that last for 15 years….I assume each doll represents a child somewhere in the world, is that right?

“Yes, that’s why it has a birth certificate, but it has a lot of additional messages. As most of the dolls are produced in schools we think it is a very natural way to raise awareness among children about problems elsewhere, about child rights. For example this year we had an intern here, a young university student who said that when she was a child in primary school she also made a doll for UNICEF and so she really wanted to do her internship here. I think that in a way this is better than the traditional civic education.”

Have you yourself made a doll or adopted one?

“I have a lot of dolls that I adopted over the years. Some are from friends who are designers but I also have a great many from schools, because when I go to an event where there are dolls made by children I really cannot resist and sometimes it is really hard to choose just one. So, yes, I have a lot of dolls. I haven’t made any myself although I keep planning to. It is my New Year’s resolution every year but I think it is more important to buy them.”

You said the idea came from Italy. Obviously it is a huge success here – are you hoping to see it spread to other countries as well?

“It has already spread. We know that dolls are made also in France, Finland, Slovenia and hopefully other countries will join us as well because we think it is a very valuable community fundraising project. It has a lot of layers – awareness raising, fundraising, communication among people – we really believe this is a worthy project.”

Does it connect people from different countries as well – not just here in the Czech Republic?

Photo: archive of UNICEF
“I travel to different schools around the country that produce these dolls and I remember that at one of these schools somewhere in Moravia – they had a map with flags where their dolls had been adopted. Many of their dolls ended up abroad, they like getting the feedback and today there are many innovative ways how to work with the project and how to motivate children and people to still get involved.”

Do you have any further hopes for this project?

“There are still 1.5 million children who die every year because of diseases which can be prevented with immunization. For me this is a tragedy because in the 21st century when we have almost everything and enormous wealth and people are connected via the Internet and social networks it is such a paradox. This needs to be eliminated - so we need more dolls. ”