When Alexis Doucette moved to college last month, she packed an unusual item for a dorm room: a sewing machine. Between classes in entrepreneurship this fall, she’ll be at the machine, running a business of her own.
The 18-year-old from Belle Plaine is the founder of Allyhoo, a nonprofit that donates handmade stuffed animals to hospitalized children. Doucette launched it in 2014, a year and a half after she landed in the hospital herself.
She was 13, and her joints ached so much that there were days she couldn’t get out of bed. It turned out to be arthritis caused by an unknown autoimmune disease.
“I’m one of those people that likes to know everything, so not knowing what’s going on inside of me kind of sucks,” Doucette said.
She quit the track team and started chemotherapy, with three self-administered injections a day and constant nausea.
She admits to having “pity parties” for herself. But that changed when she met other kids at Children’s Hospitals of Minnesota. “I started seeing cancer patients, or patients who are immobilized or have it far worse than I do,” she said. “I wanted to make other children’s stay at the hospital easier, because I know what it’s like to be scared.”
After Doucette gave up track, her parents got her a sewing machine. She learned fast, and designed an owl-shaped pillow she dubbed the Allyhoo. She made 10 brightly colored, cuddly creatures, and donated them to Children’s.
People often will donate handmade blankets and pillowcases to pediatric patients, but the owls are different, said Maggie Overman Larson, senior development associate for the Children’s Minnesota Foundation.
“It’s unique in that it’s a homegrown stuffed animal,” she said. “We don’t have anybody else doing what she’s doing.”
Doucette threw herself into Allyhoo. She designed more characters, and her father helped her launch a website.
To date, she has donated more than 200 huggable owls, puppies and penguins.
“It really helped put her medical condition on the back burner,” said Kate Pauly, Doucette’s mother. “Now when I think of Ally, I no longer think of my sick daughter. I think of this wonderful person starting this cause.”
Doucette clipped coupons for fabric and stuffing, but she needed Allyhoo to become self-sufficient. So she came up with twins: When customers buy an Allyhoo for themselves, they pay to donate an identical one to a child.
Doucette recruited friends to stitch. They’ll stay on while she sews from Vermilion Community College in Ely, Minn.
She now has six “team members,” including Haley Johnson, 18, who was inspired by her friend’s idea. “Everyone’s like, ‘Teenagers are so bad,’ ” Johnson said, “but then you look at what Ally’s doing.”
Before creating Allyhoo, Doucette considered studying neuroscience. Now, she’s all about business. “I want Allyhoo to become my career, so I have to learn more,” she said. “I don’t know all the official business terms.” Her goal is to have her own office building teeming with staff and volunteers.
Although she’s back on chemotherapy, in pill form now, “I don’t have pity for myself anymore,” Doucette said. The pain has never been so bad, she said, that she couldn’t sew.