Kristen Maser Michaels, Safaa Bokhari, Gisele Fetterman. Photo by Maranie Staab.

Gisele Fetterman and Kristen Michaels’ new nonprofit, For Good PGH, is off to a pretty good start.

Okay, a really good start. The idea was to find “some positive things we could do for vulnerable populations,” says Michaels.

Their first project, “Hello Hijab,” had the simplest of beginnings, but it’s gotten worldwide attention in just a few weeks.

“My daughter has toys from all over the world, dolls with all kinds of skin colors, even one in a wheelchair,” says Fetterman. “We were looking one day and realized she didn’t have any dolls that looked like the mothers of her friends, the grandmothers of her friends.”

Some of those women are Muslim, who wear the traditional veil called a hijab (not all Muslims wear it, but many do). Fetterman looked around online and didn’t really find what she was looking for.

“I found some Muslim dolls, but I like the accessory part of it,” says Fetterman. “I like kids to see, ‘Here’s this doll. She has a headscarf; now she doesn’t. It’s the same doll underneath.’”

It’s a gentle way to say, “We may look different on the outside, but underneath, we’re the same.”

Or, “We believe in different things, and people can come from different places, but we all deserve compassion and respect,” says Fetterman.

Fetterman, who came to the U.S. from Brazil as a child, is the founder of the Free Store 15104, and co-founder of 412 Food Rescue. She’s also married to Braddock’s mayor, John Fetterman. Michaels helped create the Free Store Wilkinsburg and is executive director of CONNECT, a nonprofit that helps Pittsburgh and its 36 neighboring municipalities share expertise and work together on issues they have in common.

Between them, they have a lot of experience in turning big ideas into something concrete. But this little, doll-sized idea was moving faster than they expected.

They decided it would be smart to run the idea by a friend.

“Safaa Bokhari, from Saudi Arabia, is our partner for Hello Hijab,” says Fetterman. “She’s had some negative experiences [as a hijab-wearing Muslim] in Pittsburgh.”

She loved the idea. So they began to ask as many Muslim women as they could what they thought.

“It was incredibly positive,” says Fetterman. “They often have fear leaving the home, as a hijabi woman. They hope this will impact the next generation.”

“We didn’t move forward until we had support from the community. We received a full blessing from the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, and everyone we met with.”

Hello Hijab. Photo by Maranie Staab.

Somehow word got out.

A few local stories quickly led to features in The Huffington Post, CNN, German television, Hello Pakistan! Magazine, and many moreall without an actual product for sale. The public can order the doll-sized garments from For Good starting April 1.

“We’ve received emails from as far as Egypt, from people who say they’re moved by this initiative,” says Fetterman.

They’ve even gotten help finding colorful fabric for the project. A few women donated their own hijabs, to be cut up and refashioned into miniature versions for dolls.

They’re selling for $6 each. Two Egyptian sisters in Pittsburgh, who are seamstresses, make them. They’ll be paid $15 an hour, says Michaels.

“Once the seamstresses are paid, 100 percent goes to charity,” notes Fetterman.

The charities include the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, the ACLU of Pittsburgh, Change Agency, and the Jewish Family and Children’s Services, which handles a lot of the refugee resettlements in Pittsburgh.

“If children play with dolls that all look the same, they might go through life and think that the world should all look the same,” says Michaels.

Not everybody loves the idea, of course.

“Every hate mail we get further validates our push for raising a kinder generation,” says Fetterman. “I only know how to respond with love. This will be the first of a lot of little projects that we hope will have an impact.”

Ramona Michaels, Genyah Prunty, Salma Bokhari, Grace Fetterman playing with Hello Hijab-clad dolls. Photo by Maranie Staab.

Already, one of those other For Good projects is taking shape. It, too, began as a conversation with a friend.

“We were thinking, ‘What are some positive things we can do for vulnerable populations? Maybe it’ll inspire others,’” recalls Michaels.

They happened to be at Social at Bakery Square and asked the owner a strange question, point-blank.

“I asked Gregg Caliguiri if he could open Social at Bakery Square [his restaurant], to the homeless community after hours,” says Michaels. “He said, ‘Of course. Why not while we’re open, so they feel part of our community?’”

“So, I met with Gregg and Rev. Kellie Wild, of the East End Cooperative Ministry (EECM),” who Caliguiri also suggested they partner with, says Michaels. The idea of the partnership was “to welcome residents from EECM [which has a transitional housing program for the homeless] to have a nice restaurant experience.”

For Good PGH has a few projects like this in the works. There’s a photo studio that’s going to do free family portraits. A hair salon is partnering with a foster care agency to give free haircuts to foster kids.

“It’s not hard to do something nice for other people,” says Michaels. “And it can have a big impact.”

Michael Machosky

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife,...