Locally-crafted dolls are toys with a message

Naomi Johnson, the mother of four children with fetal alcohol syndrome, has used her talent for knitting to start a toy business that highlights the dangers of drinking while pregnant.

After adopting four children with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), a Brandon-area entrepreneur is making her penchant for knitting a business with an important message for expectant mothers.

Naomi Johnon’s Neenee Kaboo Baby and Youth Products is marketing a line of unique dolls for babies, toddlers and older children while highlighting the fact that drinking any amount of alcohol during pregnancy can negatively affect the fetus. The idea came to her when she combined her goal of starting a business with creating a line of toys for her youngest daughter.

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“We adopted a little girl and all her siblings, which are also adopted and quite a bit older than her,” Johnson told The Westman Journal. “I had this crazy idea that what she could really use was a ragdoll type thing that looks like her siblings because they’re all at school now. I went looking for custom dolls and couldn’t believe how much they cost and what it took to make them. I decided that I had enough knitting skills from somewhere way back beyond to start doing that myself.”

A year later, she has established a line of toys that are sized according to the age of the child playing with them. The dolls have different tones of skin and various personalities outlined on documents that come with their purchase. Johnson also makes custom dolls for families wishing to make miniature versions of themselves.

“It was something I saw a need for with our daughter,” she said. “There are a lot of toys out there, but there’s something different about a toy they can hold. We found, as I was knitting, I would give the dolls to her to play with as I was getting the design right and when they’re babies, the baby (dolls) themselves are the perfect size. It fits their hand. It doesn’t have any legs and doesn’t have a whole bunch of pieces, but they can hold it. She recognizes the main features, like the eyes and the nose, and she knew which way around the head was.”

Each doll also has a card with educational information highlighting the dangers of drinking while pregnant and the affects of FAS. Johnson knows that most children may not understand the information, but the message about drinking during pregnancy is clear to the parents and older children.

“There’s no permissible amount of alcohol to have while you’re expecting.”
– Naomi Johnson

“If there is one message that they take from it, it would be not to drink if and when that times comes, or to encourage others not to. That would be great,” Johnson said.

The Neenee Kaboo line of dolls are currently being retailed through the business’s website, neeneekaboo.com, and the Baby Bump Pregnancy Care Centre on 18th Street in Brandon.

Originally from England, Johnson has also made connections there, taking her burgeoning business international. Since beginning to sell the dolls in November, customers in England and New Zealand have been in contact with her.

“There seems to be quite a big movement for preventing FAS disorders in Australia and New Zealand,” she said, adding that she also hopes to work with organizations like the Brandon School Division (BSD) to create fundraising initiatives with her line of products.

“We haven’t heard word back from (BSD), but we have some other ties in other areas of Canada. We have family in Flin Flon and some friends in Yellowknife that would like to pass it on to their school division, so we’re hoping that would be the route it takes.”

Neenee Kaboo’s proposed fundraising program would see 20 per cent of proceeds from the sale of the dolls benefiting schools, parent councils or other organizations wishing to raise money for their own needs.

“I’m hoping as the business grows and we’re making more dolls that we can donate the profits or make dolls to gift to places like the Elspeth Reid Centre and Pregnancy Crisis Centre Westman to pass on,” she said.

“I was (at the crisis centre) this morning, actually. It would be a really nice to give a doll to hand on to a mother; just something for them to hold on to so they remember during that time that there is a baby involved in their life right from the very beginning.”

The business’s website continues to develop with the same emphasis on the dangers of FAS. Johnson is working with an acquaintance in England on developing an animation on fetal alcohol syndrome with the dolls as characters. Besides being available to watch at neeneekaboo.com, Johnson hopes the video will be made available to schools and health facilities for educational purposes.

Bobs and Lolo, a children’s music duo based in Vancouver, B.C., has offered their music for a soundtrack on both the video and the website.

All of this was born from the adoption of four children, each of whom require care across a spectrum of disorders associated with FAS.

“FASD affects some of the children more emotionally, and some socially and one of our children, academically, and it’s something you can’t see,” said Johnson. “Our kids are all very well behaved, but it’s something very real to them. It’s an uphill struggle and they do amazing. Kids can definitely be successful. It’s just very hard to see that it is something that is 100 per cent preventable…

“There’s no permissible amount of alcohol to have while you’re expecting.”

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