What's the first thing that comes to mind when you think of American Girl Place?
“Only White girls go there” are the words that came out of one seven-year-old girl’s mouth at Brooklyn's Public School 28 when her classmate mentioned that her cousin received a doll from the store for her birthday.
That remark caught the attention of special education teacher Rob Robinson.
“Although I didn't know anything about American Girl Place, I responded, ‘No, [everyone] goes to that place,’ ” he says. “And to debunk that idea, I [Googled] American Girl Place NYC, just positive that when the images appeared, they would see many, many girls of color [who] looked like them. That idea failed miserably. And they looked at me like ‘Yeah. Uh huh.’ So, I responded, ‘Guess what? We are going there.’ ”
Robinson didn’t know that a doll from American Girl Place costs more than $100, and spending an entire day at the store comes with a hefty price tag—one that most of his students couldn’t afford. An estimated 80 percent of the students at the school, located in Bedford Stuyvesant, qualify for the federal free lunch program.
But he remained determined to show these girls that they too, could be a part of the “American Girl” experience.
To fund the trip, he built a website where people could make donations, as well as leave inspiring messages for the girls. He also approached his network to help spread the word.
At first, Robinson worried that people wouldn’t donate, but he ultimately raised $14,000 in only five weeks.
That $14,000 allowed him to take a total of 27 girls to American Girl Place and provided them with a limo ride to and from the store, private security, stylists to do their hair and nails, private dining at the store’s café and, of course, a doll.
And so, after much anticipation, the day (June 20) finally arrived for 27 girls of color to experience the trip of a lifetime. Robinson says it was none other than “life changing.”
“These 27 girls of color walked in single file with their sundresses on, purses in their hands [and] shades on behind their private security...The place went silent [as onlookers wondered what] stars these were the children of,” he says.
Although Robinson could’ve simply raised just enough money to cover the cost of the dolls, which would’ve been $3,000, he says it was important to go the extra mile for these girls.
“You know how much better you feel about yourself when your nails are done, when your makeup is tight, when your hair is done, when you are photo shoot fresh, yes?” he asks. “Same for them, even more so.”
The girls left laden with gift bags and beaming from the star treatment, but Robinson says the event was about something far more important. He hopes the girls realized that “anything is available to them because they are worthy, and if they get a good education and work hard, this and anything else is theirs.”
This isn’t the first time Robinson has gone out of his way to expand his students’ horizons. With the help of his friends, he took 15 boys and girls to high tea at the Russian Tea Room, Cipriani Dolci at Grand Central Terminal, as well as the famous Broadway play, “Phantom of the Opera" last year.
“None of the students had ever eaten at a place better than McDonald’s or ever been to a Broadway play,” he says. “The girls got their nails and makeup done, donned cocktail dresses [while] the boys wore tuxedos, and we traveled by limousine.”
Next year, he plans on taking 30 boys and girls to the White House to meet President Barack Obama.
“They need to see, touch, hear someone who looks like them, who ascended to the leadership of the free world,” he says. “It will be a full weekend with them traveling by plane, as most of these children have never been on one … In addition to meeting President Obama, [they will] get a chance to visit the Smithsonian, the newly constructed African-American Museum and the [Martin Luther King, Jr.] memorial.”
As for this most recent adventure, Robinson says he felt it was his responsibility to show these little girls that with hard work and education, they can have the world at their fingertips.
“I knew that this was a critical point in their development and lives, where they form key belief systems about themselves, their self-image, and what they can and cannot do,” he says. “[There’s no way I could] let them think there was a place that they didn't have access to because of their very temporary economic scenario. [There’s] no way [I could] as a father and a Black man allow that to [happen] no matter how much this would cost.”
For more information regarding future fundraising efforts, visit www.21girlsofcolortoamericangirlcom.
Princess Gabbara is