Alta Johnson of Akron, IA Sews Dresses
By Julie Ann Madden
“We’re not just sending dresses, we’re sending hope” is the motto of a nonprofit Christian group called “Little Dresses For Africa.”
People from Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Singapore and all over the United States, including Akron, Iowa, are sewing dresses for African girls.
All it takes is a pillowcase, some sewing elastic and bias tape, according to one local seamstress Alta Johnson.
Former Akron resident Doris Brundeen brought the project to Akron’s Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Women’s group, which makes bandages from bed sheets and sends them to the Lutheran World Relief organization.
Advertisements for donations of sheets are made in their church’s weekly bulletin and monthly newsletter, said Johnson, explaining people who donate sheets often include the matching pillowcases, too. When Brundeen asked Lutheran World Relief officials if they wanted something done with the pillowcases, they said no and referred her to Little Dresses For Africa.
“We had a whole bunch of pillowcases so I went to (the organization’s) website,” Johnson told The Akron Hometowner. “I thought I’ll just try this.”
“I got started and it was so much fun,” she said, explaining she makes five or six dresses assembly-line style at one time. It takes a couple of hours to make each dress from start to finish.
Of course, she sometimes adds decorations such as a line of ric-rac trim a few inches from the bottom, a pocket surrounded by lace or a ribbon bow at the neckline.
“It’s a little expensive for the bias tape but otherwise there’s not much expense except for (the postage costs to mail them to the organization),” she said.
Last fall, Johnson made 42 of these pillowcase dresses and shipped them to the organization, which is located in Brownstown, Mich. Since Christmas, she has made 18 more.
Marilyn Berka, wife of Immanuel Lutheran Church’s interim pastor, Jim Berka, also sews these special dresses. Her special gift is often sewing a matching small purse to go with the dress.
The rest of Immanuel’s ELCW group makes bandages or sews quilts. The group meets any month there is a fifth Thursday, on Work For Missions Day, They cut sheets into strips to roll into bandages and make quilts for Lutheran World Relief.
Little Dresses For Africa was founded in 2008 by Rachel O’Neill.
More than 2 million dresses have been made by volunteers and shipped overseas. They have been distributed in 47 African countries plus sent to other countries in crisis such as Honduras, Guatemala, Thailand, The Dominican, The Philippines, Cambodia, Mexico and Haiti. Furthermore, dresses have been sent to children in need right here in the United States, in the Appalachian Mountains and South Dakota.
“Our mission is to provide relief to children of Africa, by distributing dresses to little girls,” according to the organization’s website. “It is our hope that in delivering dresses to these young girls, that a seed will be planted in their hearts, in the name of Jesus, that they are worthy.”
It’s more than just a dress! Although clothing is needed, these little dresses also give us an opportunity to hold Bible classes, children’s camps and informal teaching sessions to increase their knowledge in nutrition, clean water, and and to promote good health and family skills knowledge. We also visit many patients who are suffering from AIDS, and their care-givers, to offer encouragement and hope.” sanitation and to promote good health and family skills knowledge. We also visit many patients who are suffering from AIDS, and their care-givers, to offer encouragement and hope.” and to promote good health and family skills knowledge. We also visit many patients who are suffering from AIDS, and their care-givers, to offer encouragement and hope.”
Just back from a wonderful speaking engagement in Richland, WA. Thank you, Little Dresses of the Tri-City area, for a wonderful weekend. Chris Macourek and her group have made close to 6000 beautiful dresses and sent them to us. It was a great time to celebrate with the sewers and supporters and celebrate we did! And what fun to put faces to the names I’ve known through the years for their beautiful work. After a wonderful potluck, we headed to the Richland Community Center for a chance to share the Little Dresses for Africa story and some tips on sewing from Chris. Huge thanks to our hostess, Chris and also the lovely group that took us to dinner that evening. Wow! Hospitality PLUS!
Since I began sewing this summer for the beautiful girls that LDFA serves, I took a photo of each dress I made. I had two goals: 1)No two would be exactly alike. I use some of the same fabrics, of course, but it seemed important to me to make each dress as unique as I could for the one-of-a-kind girl that would wear it. 2) I wanted to complete 100 “littledresses” by Christmas of this year.
Well, I my promise to myself and each dress is an “original” but I finished the FIRST 100 on the eve of Columbus Day, instead!:-)
As I told Rachel today by phone – and as you ALL know oh so well – we who sew at home for girls a need even one pretty, modest, comfortable, well-made dress could NOT do this work alone. Donations of gift cards, fabric, rick rack, bias tape, checks for postage made out to LDFA – all from friends and family who “got it” about this important mission have made all the difference. Add their love, support, encouragement and prayers? How could I NOT make my goal?!
Wow. And this was the SHORT version . . . what can I say? I am humbled and delighted to be a part of something SO big and important. Bless you, LDFA, bless all of you who help even one child see themselves the way God sees them. . . beautiful and cherished.
PS Dresses 81-90 were hand-delivered to Joseph Lubega of Bulamu Children’s Village, Uganda as he visited the USA for the first time. A mutual friend, Becki DeVries, introduced us at my school (I’m a teaching assistant) and he took my dresses home to Africa. Brother Joseph sent me this amazing photo of five of his “children” wearing their new clothes and I can tell you I shed a lot of grateful, humble tears . . . and now, Rachel is helping me send enough dresses to outfit their small orphanage and school!
God is good, and so is Little Dresses for Africa! Keep up the GREAT work, ya’ll!
cindy lamb sterling on facebook
It only takes YOU to start something in your area. This is one of my absolute favorites! Jean has really gotten the ball going in the Saginaw, Michigan area. Her group has sewn close to 6000 pieces for the children. They come to us perfectly sized and separated. Each one is beautiful. Thank you, Jean!!!
Sewing volunteers, from left, Nancy Hundley, Dot Schlosser and Nancy Dollahon, hold samples for their work for Little Dresses for Africa at Steve’s Sewing, Vacuum and Quilting, King of Prussia, Sunday, June 16, 2013. With them are Steve’s employees Christine Fackler, second from right, and Barb Jones Submitted Photo.
NORRISTOWN — It was an ad at Steve’s Sewing, Vacuum and Quilting in King of Prussia that first caught Nancy Hundley’s attention. The listing was for a charity sewing class called “Little Dresses for Africa.”
Nancy called her friend Dot Schlosser and invited her to join. The $5 price tag proved an added incentive. “We couldn’t lose,” said Hundley.At the end of that first class, as the dresses they sewed were being collected, the women asked if they could hold on to theirs to show the congregation at the Haws Avenue United Methodist Church in Norristown.
Those two initial dresses, sewn at a class taken on a whim, have been joined today by a hundred more. And Little Dresses for Africa, an international nonprofit Christian organization that seeks to provide African children with some basic necessities, gained a regional outpost.
Rachel O’Neill of Brownstown, Mich., started Little Dresses for Africa in 2008 and has grown rapidly. After it was featured on “NBC Nightly News,” a viewer offered O’Neill warehouse space for the project’s expansion. Donations have arrived from all 50 states, and dresses have been sent beyond Africa to other countries in need like Mexico, Haiti, and Cambodia.
The group’s mission is to curb the rate at which girls are abducted and molested. According to Little Dresses, reports show that a new dress deters potential assailants by suggesting that the girl they are targeting is being looked after. Hundley explained that lack of attire may “send a message that this is a girl that nobody cares about.” Each dress is made with an easy-to-follow form detailed on the Little Dresses website: www.littledressesforafrica.org
a simple pillowcase pattern that allows for quick replication and keeps costs low. It is recommended that the dresses be made of cotton or a cotton blend to stand up to repeated washings and the African climate. To date, more than 2 million dresses have been produced and shipped to 47African countries.
Those who have never handled needle and thread should not worry. Charity sewing does not preclude their participation.“Even beginner sewers could make them,” Hundley said. In addition to sewing volunteers, donations toward fabric and trim are also needed. The Haws Avenue United Methodist group estimates that each dress ends up costing around $12.
The dresses are not merely utilitarian, however. In fact, their aesthetic appeal has garnered interest for them outside of the typical 2 to 12 age range. “We had a lady ask if we could make one in her size,” said Nancy Dollahon, another parishioner spearheading the sewing at the Haws Avenue church.
While Little Dresses for Africa is religiously affiliated, church membership is not a prerequisite for participating. Church groups have provided a beneficial organizing structure and yet, many have learned of Little Dresses on their own and contribute individually.
Volunteers print patterns out at home, work on them at local sewing circles and send the finished product directly to the initiative’s Michigan headquarters, where they will be packaged and shipped to Africa or one of the many other countries needing donations. The dresses are then be distributed via orphanages, schools, and churches, and the children will receive them regardless of their beliefs.
In Norristown, after a dress or, in this case, many dresses are finished, they are taken to Steve’s, which pays to ship them to Nancy’s Notions, a sewing supply retailer based in Wisconsin, which in turn facilitates the shipping of the dresses to their final destinations. Nancy’s Notions alone has been responsible for transporting 63,000 dresses.
The Haws Avenue women recall that without a product to show, initial reaction to the project was tepid. Hundley said they received a “so what?” response when they first introduced the project to fellow parishioners. The project gained steam only when the women publicly presented the first batch of dresses during a Sunday service in which the Rev. Dr. Anita Powell, district superintendent of the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church, conferred a blessing on them and the congregation was able to see the product of just three people’s labor.
“I got the idea to send letters out to the community to see if we could get other groups,” said Schlosser, the other founding member of the Haws Avenue group. “And we’ve gotten three other churches and three or four individuals.” They have been joined by Hearts and Hands, a group from the Church of the Good Shepherd in King of Prussia, Faith Church in Worcester, and St. John’s Episcopal, also in Norristown.
Clothing drives are nothing new. And yet Little Dresses broadens the conventional understanding of charity by creating a more intimate relation between donor and recipient. The time spent crafting each dress deepens a person’s relationship to the donation and to the reality of the situation in poor countries.
“When I’m sewing, I envision the little girl,” Hundley said. In the midst of a community struggling to make sense of the violence that surrounds it, campaigns like Little Dresses for Africa offer a temporary relief.
“There’s too much bad news in Norristown,” Hundley said. Their church group plans to continue through the end of the year, and it is asking both for donations and more sewing volunteers. And maybe then, one dress per little girl will become two. “I was hoping they would give them two dresses, one they could wear and one they could wash, Hundley said. “How are you going to wash your dress if you only have one?”
Anyone who wishes to get involved may phone Dot Schlosser at 610-539-1727 or 610-787-1660.
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