Two years ago, Anja Busse, then 11, created a video and online petition urging popular toymaker American Girl to add a little something to its lineup of toy offerings.
Three months earlier, Anja had been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease that causes the body to stop producing insulin, a hormone that regulates blood sugars. Without replacing insulin, either via multiple daily injections or an insulin pump, a Type 1 diabetic like Anja will die.
And while Anja loved her American Girl dolls, she wanted them to be more like her. Specifically, Anja wanted to have for her dolls the very things that literally keep her alive, like an insulin pump and blood-testing meter.
It's a big adjustment to be diagnosed with a life-altering disease as a child.
I know because I was also diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at 9 years old. One minute, I was packing for my first week away from home: sleep-away Girl Scout camp. The next minute, plans changed and I was packing for a week at the hospital. While I was supposed to be doing fun camp stuff like riding horses, doctors at the hospital were figuring out how much insulin I'd need to survive and teaching my parents and I how to avoid possible long-term complications like blindness and kidney failure.
It's possible to live very well with Type 1 diabetes, but it's a challenge for a young child to transition into this new life.
Anything that helps make that easier on a child is always welcome, and for many kids who like dolls, it's natural to want their dolls to reflect their reality.
Anja's petition received over 4,000 signatures and some media attention, but not much happened ... until two weeks ago, when American Girl released a diabetes care kit!
The new American Girl Diabetes Care Kit includes all the things a Type 1 diabetic needs: a blood sugar monitor, lancing device, insulin pump, insulin pen, medical bracelet, glucose tablets, log book, ID card, stickers, and carrying case.
Anja was thrilled.
"I'm so excited!!! I feel like this is something that will really help diabetic kids cope with this disease and make them not feel alone," she said as her mom, Ingrid Busse, and I chatted over Facebook for this story.
And she wasn't the only one!
Lots of parents shared photos on Anja and Ingrid's Facebook page of their adorable kids who have Type 1 diabetes with their newly accessorized dolls:
"We are so excited that diabetic kids will be able to walk into any American Girl doll store now and be able to see and buy a doll that truly looks like them," Ingrid said.
The new kits are wonderful for the kids, but they're also great for teaching others about the challenges children with Type 1 diabetes face.
One thing Ingrid would like everyone to know is that there's no cure for her daughter's disease.
"The majority of people don't know the difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes, and [there] are a lot of misconceptions," she told me. "People tell us that she got it from eating too much sugar or that they know of a diet that will cure it. ... To survive, [Type 1 diabetics] need to prick their fingers six to ten times a day, count the carbs in everything they eat so they take the right amount of insulin, and take insulin injections four to six times a day or via an insulin pump that is attached to them."
With any luck, these new toys will be beneficial to both the kids who have the disease and those around them.
This isn't the first time American Girl has made an effort to create toys for kids facing differences or challenges.
They've made several accessories, like a hearing aid:
And arm crutches:
And even a lunch kit for kids with food allergies:
American Girl also created a line of dolls without hair, which could be comforting to children who have lost their hair to chemotherapy.
It's easy to roll our eyes and say kids don't need toys that are just like them.
But the truth is that having their real lives reflected by their toys is a big deal for a lot of kids — and it's a big deal for everyone else, too.
The challenges kids face are sometimes made just a tiny bit easier when their dolls can experience them, too. Take Jerrensia, for example. This vivacious 6-year-old uses arm crutches to walk with her prosthetic legs.
Jerrensia's mom Jen Kroll's Facebook post about a Target ad showing a child using arm braces went viral late last year. Jerrensia was excited to see a child just like herself in an advertisement. Jen was excited for others to have the opportunity to see a child like Jerrensia in an advertisement.
At the time, Jen told me every step that makes the challenges children face when they have special needs and different abilities more mainstream is a big deal. American Girl dolls are widely known and loved, so how great is it for everyone to see these differences?
When I brought the arm braces for American Girl dolls to her attention, Jen was in tears. Jerrensia is a big American Girl fan (as you can see in these photos!), and having a big part of herself reflected in her toy means the world to Jerrensia.
And that right there is reason enough to appreciate these options.
It's exciting to see that toy manufacturers are listening to consumers.
"We’re thrilled with the reaction that we’re hearing from our young fans and their parents," Stephanie Spanos from American Girl wrote to me via email about the response the diabetic kit has drawn.
While nobody from American Girl reached out to Anja or Ingrid, I think it's safe to say that companies are taking notice of consumers' desires. And I know American Girl dolls are pricey and out of many families' budgets, but what if all toymakers got on board with offering more options?
We can all take a page out of Anja Busse's book and do our best to make our voices heard!