- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 3, 2009

With kindergarten on the horizon, Rachel Rawson had some unexpected issues. The Great Falls, Va., girl was adopted from China as a baby, and was just starting to notice she looked “different” from the rest of her family.

That’s when Rachel’s mother, Clara Conti, made a storybook for her daughter. It featured a strong, young heroine who returns to her home country, learning a few things along the way.

From that, a business was born. Ms. Conti, and her husband, Richard Rawson, a Northern Virginia psychologist, created JamboKids, a line of ethnic dolls accompanied by picture books aimed at teaching children ages 3 to 6 about character, self-awareness and tolerance.

“It was less of a business thing and more a labor of love,” says Ms. Conti, who founded JamboKids in late 2007. “Rachel was trying to sort out where she fit in.”

More than 15,000 children are adopted internationally to the United States annually, so there is a good chance other young adoptees are working through some of the same emotions. Meanwhile, Mr. Rawson points out that 45 percent of children younger than 5 living in the United States are of a racial minority.

That means there is a need for dolls that look like the multicultural world in which we live. Accompanying each doll is a backstory about the character’s home country, talents and family life. Think American Girl dolls, updated for the millennium.

“An interesting part of the whole process was we learned a lot about international demographics,” Mr. Rawson says. A multicultural society — particularly one that includes a lot of adoptees — is not just “a D.C. or Northern Virginia thing.”

After creating “Rachel” — the first JamboKids doll who, like the original Rachel, lives in Washington, D.C., “and will always carry a piece of China in her heart,” more JamboKids characters were added. “Jazzie” is a Liberian girl who lives with her adoptive family in New York City and “has a natural strength in leadership”; “Anya” was adopted from Russia, lives in Boston and is “destined to become a great writer, using words to help people understand the world in which they live”; “Tilly” is the product of a domestic adoption who lives in Montana and loves to sing; “Luz” was adopted from Guatemala by archaeologist parents who explore ancient ruins to learn about different cultures and civilizations; and “Niecey” is a black girl who was adopted by her aunt at age 7.

“Niecey is a quiet girl but she notices everything,” says her JamboKids bio. “She is particularly gifted with the ability to reach out to and show great kindness to other people. When she grows up, she wants to become a preacher and help other people.”

“Each one of these stories is very heartfelt,” says Ms. Conti, whose mother, Joyce, wrote the stories. “The stories reinforce how important and special they are.”

Mr. Rawson and Ms. Conti worked with artists to create the storybook pictures, as well as costume experts at Clemson University’s Apparel Research Center to get the details of the dolls’ clothing right. The dolls have American clothes and incorporate a little flair and inspiration from their home country.

Mr. Rawson, who often works with children in his Herndon practice, had a lot of input on the storybook characters.

“We came up with stories that would bring out the strength of character,” Ms. Conti says. “We focused on things that all parents want their kids to have, including security and self awareness.”

The book-and-doll sets sell for $29. The dolls alone are $19.

Mr. Rawson also penned a parents guide to accompany the dolls and books. He says there is a set of 24 characteristics — including emotional maturity, social awareness and civic mindedness — that are universally valued by people around the world. The parents guide, which can be downloaded from the JamboKids Web site (www.Jambokids.com), has worksheets that contain activities and discussion prompts for parents and children.

Working on character strengths and multicultural awareness are good lessons for all children, but may have a long-term impact on adoptees, many of whom struggle with identity issues years later. Young children may enjoy hearing the story of their adoption, but may struggle with issues of trust and self-esteem and feelings of loss and loneliness as they enter adolescence.

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