Stitches Making a Difference

Volunteer Story
Eleven-year-old entrepreneur Charlotte Gould. Photo courtesy of Nicole Gould.
Eleven-year-old entrepreneur Charlotte Gould. Photo courtesy of Nicole Gould.

When Charlotte Gould heard that her friend Quinn would need open-heart surgery, the Arizona elementary schooler darted to her sewing machine.

Born with a cleft lip and cleft palate, Charlotte knew how scary surgery could be. In fact, during her last procedure, she cuddled up with one of the first things she ever made with her sewing machine: A doll in her own likeness, right down to her tortoiseshell glasses and faint scar that runs from her nose to her lips.

For Quinn’s doll, Charlotte picked the perfect fabric – a peony pink and polka-dotted material paired with a magenta thread for stitching. She got to work sewing and stuffing the doll, complete with Quinn’s rosy cheeks, happy smile and stitches near her heart.

After witnessing the doll accompany Quinn through her three open-heart surgeries, Charlotte became inspired to create her own line of surgery-companion dolls called Stitches by Charlotte.

Hundreds of children around the U.S. had their own doll by their side as they entered the operating room thanks to Charlotte’s ambition to comfort young patients going through the same experiences that she did.  

“I wanted to take away the scary part of it because surgeries are really, really scary,” Charlotte said, who’s had five surgeries to treat her cleft conditions. “I just really needed something that made a difference and let these kids know that they are not alone, that I have been there, too.”

With Stitches by Charlotte teaming up with Operation Smile, even more children around the world will be comforted by the young entrepreneur’s handiwork.

Photo courtesy of Nicole Gould.
Photo courtesy of Nicole Gould.

Not only has Charlotte donated some of the proceeds to Operation Smile, but she decided to celebrate her 11th birthday in a big way. By creating a Smile Fund, Charlotte hoped to raise enough funds for 11 children to receive the same life-changing care that she did. 

Her hopes were realized when she exceeded her goal and raised enough money for more than 11 surgeries. But that’s not all.

Charlotte also hand-selected 11 of her surgery-companion dolls and plans to give them to patients at medical mission sites in Ghana, Guatemala and beyond.

Operation Smile high school volunteer Maura Canavan made the first special delivery of a Stitches By Charlotte doll during the April 2019 medical mission in Ho, Ghana. Maura and her fellow student volunteers decided to give it to 11-year-old Salvation, whose surgery was the last one of the day.

“Since Salvation said she wanted to fit in with the other girls at her school, we explained to her that she was beautiful already, and now there was a doll that could look just like her,” said Maura, who recently graduated from Lawrence High School in New Jersey. “Her beauty was unique, and now her doll could share her beauty by personalizing it. Her eyes lit up when we explained the Charlotte doll to her (and how it could be customized), and her smile did not leave her face the entire night.”

Charlotte was cast into the national spotlight after her dolls earned her the top prize at an entrepreneurship contest, giving her an even larger platform to raise awareness for cleft conditions. This July, she will share her story at Operation Smile Student Programs’ International Student Leadership Conference at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.

“I love doing it, it just makes me super happy,” Charlotte said. “I get to teach a lot of people about cleft lip and cleft palate and about having one.”

With the prize money, Charlotte took her current line to the next level. Every doll now comes with a child friendly sewing kit so patients and their families can sit with the doctor before the operation and sew stitches into the doll to show where the surgery will happen.

For a boy named Elijah, he and his cuddly counterpart both had stitches in their knees after having tumors removed.

“I wanted the dolls to match the kid so doctors, parents and nurses could sit down with the child and explain their surgery like ‘You’re going to go to sleep, and when you wake up, you’re going to have stitches here,’” Charlotte explained.

This blending of a comforting toy and educational tool is something that Charlotte’s mom and favorite business partner, Nicole, said she would have loved to have when Charlotte was growing up and going through her procedures.

“I remember trying to wrap it around my brain and figure out how to tell my 5 year old that she’s going to have a major surgery – I wish I'd had that doll,” Nicole said. “Now, we’re trying to bridge the gap between the medical world, different companies and families.”

Today, the mother-daughter dynamic duo has made that possible.

Photo courtesy of Nicole Gould.
Photo courtesy of Nicole Gould.

While Charlotte still has her hands on every single doll – she and her grandmother lovingly hand-stuff each one – the prize money enabled them to work with a factory close to their home.

In addition to selling online and catering to the active digital demand, the factory gave Charlotte an opportunity to exercise her budding business chops.

“We’d go into these factories, and literally the words that come out of Charlotte’s mouth were like ‘Tell me how this is going to work,’ or ‘So, how can you help us?’” Nicole said. “She will then voice her opinions like ‘Ok, I think that’s great, but I don’t like what you said about how the bow tie is going to be sewn on.’ She’s good.

“It’s kind of neat, too, to have something so close to our house that we can go to all the time and have a very hands-on approach, because I want her to learn through all of that, too,” Nicole said.

For Charlotte, there was something about the factory they chose that she especially appreciated.

“It’s a mother-daughter team, so it’s a lot like my mom and me because we run the business together,” Charlotte said. “My mom is the most incredible person I know. She is kind and patient, and she really works with me on these dolls and helps me a lot. She is the best mom in the whole world.”

Photo courtesy of Nicole Gould.
Photo courtesy of Nicole Gould.