Kindergarten student receives Barbie with alopecia

Published 1:02 pm Thursday, February 27, 2020

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Last spring, Fuqua School kindergarten student Gwen Franssen was diagnosed with alopecia universalis, a medical condition characterized by the complete loss of hair on the scalp and body.

When young kids develop alopecia, it often affects the entire family. It’s usually a highly emotional, stressful and even scary time. There are many unknowns with this condition.

“Starting kindergarten last fall was hard,” Catherine Franssen, Gwen’s mom, said. “Although Gwen was excited to move beyond preschool and head to ‘real school’ with her big sister, and we knew that academically she was ready, we worried about her socially and emotionally. After all, it had been less than a year since she lost every hair on her body due to alopecia. While her preschool friends and teachers had been with her through the hair loss, she had a big new group of people that needed to get used to seeing past her bald head and hairless face and enjoying the amazingly vibrant person inside. Gwen was only a few months into living life as a bald girl, and we were still new to this parenting challenge.”

“It was amazing how the kids took Gwen in, it was as if nothing was different. She was a member of the class, no questions asked.” Tracy Carillia kindergarten and first-grade teacher said.

The Franssens agreed, “The entire school community welcomed Gwen and has been supportive – her class, her team of teachers, and the other kids’ parents,” added Franssen.

Gwen and her classmates enjoy playing with the classroom Barbie dolls daily during drop-off and free play time. Bailey Rutherford, a junior at Fuqua School, realized that the Barbie dolls in her mother’s K/1 classroom represented all of the students but one. Bailey’s mother is Elizabeth Rutherford who was as a K/1 assistant in Gwen’s classroom.

The Barbies were of different genders, different skin colors, and different hair and eye colors; however, there wasn’t a doll without hair, like Gwen.

Through some research, it was discovered that Mattel, Inc. does in fact make a Barbie with alopecia, but it is not sold on the market. These dolls are donated directly to alopecia organizations for distribution, making them nearly impossible to come by. This didn’t stop Bailey. She contacted Mattel, Inc. directly and moved through the chain of command until she was provided the name and email of Nancy Molenda, the executive director of The Mattel Children’s Foundation and Philanthropy.

Once Nancy heard Gwen’s story via email, and of her desire to have a Barbie in Gwen’s classroom that resembled someone like her, Molenda shipped out not one, but two Alopecia dolls for Gwen’s class. Bailey was there to make this extra, special delivery to Gwen and her classmates.

“Gwen is a sweet girl who has a smile that will light up a room. When Bailey found out a Barbie that looks like Gwen was floating around this world, she went on a mission to find it. I loved the joy on both girls’ faces when the dolls came in and they could open them. An absolute win for both Bailey and Gwen,” Elizabeth Rutherford said.

“We are so unbelievably touched at the gift of time, effort and thoughtfulness on behalf of Bailey and her teachers. Gwen feels good at school, and she is learning. These individuals have made a difference in our child’s life, and we are thankful,” Franssen said.

“Gwen’s vibrant personality and radiant smile are gifts to Fuqua School, and the natural reaction to her genuine enthusiasm is to respond in-kind as Bailey has done,” Head of School, John Melton said. “The exchange was a beautiful and heartfelt moment that is indicative of what we all hope our children will experience in school and in life.”