American Girl dolls have, for decades, been young girls' most fiercely coveted toy, its catalogue pored over and the impeccably curated tiny scenes memorized by heart.
Since Mattel bought the line 15 years ago, its focus has shifted from chronicling the lives of characters in historical settings through each doll's personal book series to modern dolls that look “just like" the girls who own them. The corresponding American Girl Magazine aims to inspire and empower girls from diverse backgrounds by featuring girls making an impact in the world, even at a young age.
Eleven-year-old Amaya Chasteen-Scheer is certainly making an impact. Amaya, a former foster kid just like her three brothers, enthusiastically helps her parents assemble suitcases and backpacks full of necessities and toys for children in the foster care system.
Their impact in the Washington, D.C. area won them a volunteer award from Washington, D.C.'s Child and Family Services. Rob Scheer (see photo above), one of Amaya's two dads, received the award. In his acceptance speech, he told the crowd how his adopted daughter's enthusiasm for the cause drives his family's charity work.
With that statement, he unknowingly catalyzed a series of events that would thrust their organization, Comfort Cases, onto the national stage. After the awards ceremony, a writer for American Girl Magazine approached Rob to ask if she could interview Amaya.
Girls who are interviewed by American Girl Magazine face stiff competition to make it into the magazine. So when the call came that Amaya would be featured in the most popular issue of the year, the whole family celebrated.
The family received advance copies of the issue mid October. “Mind you, we still had not read the story," Rob says. The journalist had taken a walk with Amaya on the family's farm, so no one but she and Amaya knew what they had talked about.
The story, written by the interviewer from 11-year-old Amaya's point of view, detailed her journey from foster care to finding a loving family – and the passion her experience gave her for helping other kids in foster care.
Several professional photos of Amaya with her stylish pink accent braids, plus a photo of the whole family, ran with the piece. Amaya began crying when she saw herself on the pages of the magazine.
Rob asked her if something was wrong. “'These are all just happy tears,'" Rob recalls her saying. “She said, 'I just can't believe it. This is going to help so many kids in foster care, Daddy.'"
But then an email from a friend punctured the family's elation. Had they seen the outcry against the article?
The right-wing activist group One Million Moms, which vows to protect children from “immorality, violence, vulgarity and profanity" in media, had urged a boycott against American Girl and its parent company, Mattel, for publishing Amaya's story.
Then came the phone calls and online comments. (The family keeps their phone number publicly listed in case the kids' birth parents ever get clean and choose to re-establish contact with the family.)
Rob received one particularly vicious phone call: “We're praying for your boys because we know you and that other gay man is raping them every night."
“That was pretty rough," he says.
One Million Moms' call for a boycott had an immense impact – but probably not the one the organization intended.
In the days after One Million Moms expressed their outrage, the hateful calls and comments gave way to calls from media outlets eager to tell the Scheer family's side of the story – and an outpouring of support for Amaya, her family and Comfort Cases.
American Girl declined an interview, but provided this statement: “American Girl stands in strong support of all girls everywhere. Our singular goal is to encourage, inspire, and unite girls of all ages and backgrounds, and we love shining a spotlight on their amazing gifts and achievements. Amaya's story about her efforts to help kids in foster care is a perfect example of how one young girl is making a meaningful difference in the lives of others. The article is very much in line with the thousands of others we've shared in American Girl® magazine over the years, and we are proud to have shared Amaya's story with our readers."
They did speak with Rob after the backlash broke out. “American Girl contacted us and said, 'We're sorry because we should have prepared you,'" he says. “'This is going to be the biggest story we have ever had.'"
As a mixed-race family with two dads, this isn't the first time the family's been glanced at sideways. Rob says the kids know not everyone thinks their family is as beautiful as they do, so they've equipped them with what they believe are the best responses: Lead by example. Speak up for what's right. Pray for those who mistreat you.
But this situation felt different to Rob. It was much bigger, and somehow it stung more coming from a group of mothers.
So, instead of their usual “stand tall and speak out" approach, Rob and his husband Reece searched for a way to protect their family from the backlash.
“We said to the kids, 'Listen, we can close our curtains. We can shut our front door. We can turn our phones off. We can sit here as a family and let all of this die down and then go about our lives,'" Rob says.
It was Amaya who protested. “It was our kids who said we can't do that," he says. “And it was my daughter who said, 'We lead by example, Daddy. We have to talk about this.'"
Finding a Way Home
Thirty-nine years ago, Rob entered foster care. He carried his belongings from home to home in a garbage bag. At 17, when he aged out of the system and became homeless, he continued to carry his only possessions in a trash bag.
Rob is now a successful man with a decade-strong relationship with his husband, Reece, but he's never forgotten how worthless he felt during that time.
Five years ago, the couple took in their first two foster-to-adopt kids, Amaya and Makai. They've since adopted two more sons, Greyson and Tristan.
“When my kids came, each one of them had a trash bag. [They] had nothing but torn and tattered clothes." He remembers thinking, “I carried a trash bag and they're still carrying trash bags?"
Rob founded Comfort Cases to change that. The first year, they aimed to put together proper suitcases full of new items that would give foster kids comfort: clothes, pajamas, toiletries and toys. Their goal was 300 cases. They made 800.
And last year, they made 7,000. This year's goal is 11,000, though because of all the media attention, they'll surely far exceed that number.
For Amaya, helping her family pack Comfort Cases is healing. It enables her to give other kids in foster care something she never had before her adoption: the knowledge that someone out there is looking out for them.
“They are important because when you're in foster care, you might feel like you don't even exist," Amaya says of the bags in the American Girl Magazine feature. “It's like you're invisible. I know because that's how I felt. Kids in that situation can be really sad. Our bags make foster kids feel as if they're loved."
And we hope that Amaya, her brothers and her two gay dads know that they're loved too.
To find out more about Comfort Cases and to support their good work, please visit their website.