St. Paul, Minn. -- Lia Thao smacks a hand over her mouth to muffle the giggles when she sees her namesake: a plush doll with silky black pigtails, half-moon eyes, creamy skin and rosy cheeks.
The lanky doll wears a beaded bracelet that spells "Lia," just like one Lia Thao, a sophomore at Harding High School in St. Paul, used to wear. She hugs the doll tight. "I'm going to be famous," she declares.
In January, Portage for Youth, a neighborhood enrichment center for young girls in St. Paul's heavily Hmong-populated Dayton's Bluff neighborhood, began selling something many of its girls have never had: a doll that looks like them.
Sure, you can find expensive, breakable Asian dolls, and there is an Asian Barbie. But as Portage for Youth director Raeann Ruth says: "You don't go to bed with Barbie -- you'll poke your eye out. This is a doll you can hug. You could cry on its shoulder. These girls need that."
If the idea takes off, proceeds from sales of the $29.95 doll could help restore some funding the small center lost in December, as non-profit grant money evaporates in this tight market. To keep the after-school programs running every day, Ruth and her daughter Amber are working without salaries.
Designing a Hmong doll didn't begin as a fund-raiser. Ruth, who opened the Portage house six years ago as an after-school haven for disadvantaged girls 8 to 15, began by sketching cardboard cutouts made to look like her 35 students -- all of whom are Hmong. The girls were enchanted, so Ruth took it a step further and designed a soft, fabric doll.
"Name it Lia!" suggested the bubbly Lia Thao, who has been coming to Portage house since its inception. So Ruth did.
She set the doll atop an aquarium at the Portage house, where girls participate in a wide range of activities from photography to computer training. The doll kept disappearing.
"We were playing with it," explains 12-year-old Gaoyee Thao, Lia's younger sister. "It's cute. I like the hair and the eyes."
So Ruth decided to make more. She got a patent on the doll design and the umbrella name Portage Pals. A few mothers of the Portage girls are sewing the dolls as fast as the orders come in. The Portage for Youth received 30 orders in its first week of sales. Ruth already is working on a Latino doll.
"The harsh reality of it is, there really aren't many ethnic dolls out there at all," toy industry expert Christopher Byrne said. "Groovy Girls have done well with ethnicities, but they're abstract, they have a fashionable look. Nobody's been able to make a go of doing an ethnic doll."
Ruth balks at that notion.
While she claims she can't possibly run a doll factory -- working overtime as she does on the Portage for Youth and the restoration of the old Mounds Theater, a $750,000 project she is overseeing -- Ruth can't stop herself from dreaming.
"We could set up a doll shop in the basement of the theater and get 12 moms working. Then, we could send one of them to business school to learn the financial end of it . . . One day, it could be huge."
Lia, the Portage Pals' Hmong doll, is available through www.theportage.org/ or by calling (651) 772-8674.