Thank you to the Detroit News and Free Press for an amazing article. Journalist Kristen Shamus certainly captured the “heart” of what we are trying to accomplish. Thank you so much, Kristen! Thank you all for your kind words and help coming in from this article. The donations for shipping and to finish the School Master’s house are coming in and we will get it done. To God be the Glory!!!! Several have asked how to help with the Fund raiser. I’d LOVE to have your help. Silent Auction pieces of all kinds are needed. Write me email@example.com and we can chat it out, and be gathering up your items, sewing your quilts, making your handmade items. It will be great! Our theme is “Eat, Drink and Be Scary!” . Costume party at Fellows Creek Golf and Conference Center in Canton, MI. The tickets are $35. each and will be available soon. Contact me to purchase in advance. We need sponsors for the evenings, ads for the programs, items for the auction, volunteers, and so much more. Please plan to be there! It will be SO fun!!! Write me if there are people that you’d like me to send a “save the date” card to. Thank you all so much for your support! You amaze me!!! Love, Rachel
Article from Sunday, July 8, 2012 Detroit Free Press
When you’re the mother of two little girls, the glass ceiling isn’t smooth like a sheet of ice hovering over your daughters’ heads. It is fragmented, with sharp and jagged points, threatening to jab and poke at them as they rise up.
When you’re the mother of two little girls, all the challenges you face in life because you’re a woman seem insignificant as you struggle to find a way — any way — to flatten those hurdles for your daughters. You never want them to feel as if there’s anything they can’t do. When you’re the mother of two little girls, stories about other girls being abused and neglected sting even more.
I am the mother of two little girls, and that is why Rachel O’Neill’s story touched me so deeply.
When the Brownstown Township woman first visited Malawi, Africa, in 2007, the poverty level was like nothing she had ever seen. There was no clean drinking water. Food was incredibly scarce. The children wore tattered and soiled clothes.
AIDS had wiped out most of the middle-age people in the village she visited — leaving 7- and 8-year-old girls to run households and tend to younger siblings.
“I was sitting in the red dirt of Malawi, and watching the look in their eyes and seeing that they had such a rough life ahead of them,” O’Neill, the mother of two, told me last week. “They spent all day preparing food, and when it was time to eat, the girls knew they came last. They just looked so sad. I wished I could do something to make these girls feel honored. To make them feel worthy.
“I wrote in my journal, ‘I’m going to bring some little dresses back for them.’ ”
Did she ever.
Dresses build trust
O’Neill didn’t even know how to sew, but she recruited friends at her church to help. They spent an evening making four simple dresses out of pillowcases.
Since that day five years ago, O’Neill has formed the nonprofit Little Dresses for Africa, which has delivered more than 1 million dresses to little girls in 41 countries in Africa, as well as children living in poverty all around the world.
She not only has delivered dresses, but also breeches for boys. Her organization has purchased food and storage containers for the people in the village of Thobola, Malawi, and built a school. Because of her work in Thobola, the government has dug a well, inoculated children for the first time and agreed to provide a teacher for the school once the school master’s house is finished.
“It’s just crazy the way it’s caught on,” O’Neill, 57, told me during her lunch break from her full-time job at AVL, a powertrain engineering company, in Plymouth.
“It’s just been snowballing and really does have a life of its own. And I believe, with my whole heart that it has the hand of God on it, and I also believe that the American people are extremely generous. They want to help, but they just don’t know how, and they just don’t know where. If you give them something tangible, like this little girl that needs this little dress, they’ll make it for you.
“Anybody can do anything.”
O’Neill is living proof of that.
She didn’t realize when she started Little Dresses for Africa that her pillowcase dresses would do so much more than give girls in extreme poverty something to smile about.
“These dresses are like little ambassadors that go out in front of us to say, ‘We’re nice people. We’re not here to hurt you; we’re here to help you.’ They give us an open door to teach them simple things like nutrition, the importance of clean water, sanitation.”
The dresses make the girls feel good and show that someone, somewhere cares. And that matters more than you might think.
“What we have found is that the children with these dresses that are new and clean and look cared for are much less likely to be abused, exploited, taken advantage of because it looks like somebody cares for them,” O’Neill said. “We had no idea that we would be protecting thousands of little girls from sexual exploitation.”
After my interview with O’Neill, I found myself rummaging through my daughters’ closets as they slept. Did we have some dresses to spare? Could we make a few ourselves?
Many helping hands
Two days later, volunteers buzzed inside a sweltering office building on Telegraph Road in Brownstown.
Women sorted piles of dresses into boxes marked S, M, L, XL. Others packed boxes and labeled them. Children floated from room to room, handing out bottles of water, helping to carry boxes.
The building, dubbed the Love Shack, was rented to O’Neill in February at a low cost so she could move Little Dresses for Africa’s operations out of the basement of her home.
Dozens of boxes stuffed with dresses still arrive on the doorstep of her house every day. Her husband, Michael O’Neill, makes deliveries to the office building so the dresses can be sorted, sized and packaged.
Many are shipped to other churches and mission groups planning to travel abroad. Some are packed in duffel bags and hand-delivered on trips O’Neill takes with volunteers.
Among those volunteers is Carol McGovern, 64, of Riverview, who learned three years ago that Little Dresses for Africa can be contagious.
She stopped by O’Neill’s house to drop off boxes one evening, but hadn’t planned to stay. When she got there, McGovern said, she just couldn’t leave.
“She’s a magnet,” McGovern said of O’Neill.
A regular now, McGovern plans to go to Africa with O’Neill next summer to deliver dresses.
“Some people say, ‘There are kids in the U.S. who need help. Why aren’t you helping them?’ And that’s true,” McGovern said. “But here, there are all kinds of agencies and organizations that can help you. … There … they have nothing and truly no help.”
Bonnie Alexander, 46, of Huron Township heard about O’Neill’s work through her church and began volunteering a year ago.
“I showed up in her basement because I said, ‘You know, this is something I can do.’ ”
Cherry Gary, 62, of Dearborn Heights brings her grandchildren to help sort dresses. She went to Malawi with O’Neill in April and plans to go back again next year.
“It’s very eye-opening,” she said. “These are the happiest people I’ve ever seen in my life. They have nothing — no electricity, no toys, but the people were so joyful.”
For O’Neill, a small idea has been transformative.
“I really do feel this is something that changes lives here and across the ocean. Women joining together to help other women and children, it’s a powerful thing,” she said.
In the gift of a little dress, light as air, come the added gifts of dignity, comfort and joy an ocean away. And in charity, comes fellowship and friendship on Telegraph Road.
It might be time to dust off the sewing machine at my house. It might be time to show my daughters how to sew a few simple dresses and teach them that they can make a world of difference to another little girl they’ll never meet.
Because when you’re the mother of two little girls, the best thing you can do for your kids is empower them, and girls like them. So one day, they will knock down that ceiling.
Contact Kristen Jordan Shamus: 313-222-5997 or firstname.lastname@example.org