When Ruby Jackson thinks of Africa, she hears singing.
As a Delta flight attendant for 33 years, Jackson spent weeks at a time in Africa during the 1980s and ’90s. Now retired, she is working to help the African people she remembers so fondly.
Jackson and her friend, Louise Morris, are volunteering their time to teach preteen campers at Mt. Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church in Cordova to stitch dresses out of pillowcases for Little Dresses for Africa, a Michigan-based Christian nonprofit organization, which will then distribute the dresses to African villages and orphanages.
Jackson, who lives in Eads, remembers scenes from Nairobi, Kenya, and Tanzania and Uganda. A grandmother sitting on a tree stump stirring a black pot of soup while her shoeless grandchildren run in the dirt. A woman begging her to take her infant to America. Families sleeping on grass mats. And she remembers children singing in an orphanage with dirt floors, many orphaned as a result of the AIDS epidemic, she said.
She said she couldn’t figure out what they were singing about.
About 14.1 million children in sub-Saharan Africa have lost one or both parents to AIDS, according to a 2009 UNICEF report that reflects numbers from 2007. Although children in sub-Saharan Africa are orphaned for a variety of reasons, AIDS accounts for roughly 25 percent of the cases, said Catherine Langevin, editor of the UNICEF report.
At first, Jackson felt overwhelmed by the situation in Africa. But, after a friend told her about Little Dresses for Africa, she knew she could do something.
“When you’re there, it’s just too big. (With Little Dresses for Africa), everybody can do something. If you can just donate a pillowcase, that’s something,” said Jackson, who estimates she will have more than 100 dresses when the camp ends Friday.
The dresses are sleeveless with elastic necklines and straps that tie around the shoulders. No two are alike.
At Mt. Pisgah, there’s a red dress with white polka dots and a bow. A floral print with a white, lacy ruffle. Striped dresses. Plaid dresses. One with a Pocahontas character on the front. Another with moon- and-star patterns. A gray dress with buttons. A brown dress with polka dot pockets.
One camper, Cortney Anderson, 10, designed a brown dress with floral straps. She reasoned that the flowers needed dirt — the brown pillowcase — to grow.
It’s the individual quality of each dress that instills a sense of worthiness in the girls who receive them, said Rachel O’Neill, founder of Little Dresses for Africa. Unlike money, tangible items like clothing will go straight to the children and won’t get “locked in bureaucracy,” said O’Neill. The dresses are something they can hold.
“They’ll wear this dress until it’s just strings,” said Jackson, holding up a light green one with black and white lace trimmings.
“We’re not just sending dresses. We’re sending hope,” added O’Neill.
So far, Little Dresses for Africa has distributed quite a lot of “hope” — approximately 67,000 dresses in 14 African countries, according to O’Neill. Dresses have also gone to Guatemala, Belize, Haiti and Indian reservations.
Recently, the organization started Britches for Boys, which distributes shorts to boys. In September, Little Dresses for Africa will distribute dresses in Malawi.
As for Jackson and Morris, they plan to continue making the dresses for many more summers. This is their third.
Jackson has heard from former co-workers that the situation in Africa has only worsened.
But for Jackson’s campers, like Temple White, 11, the situation is really quite simple, as simple as making dresses from pillowcases:
“If other people aren’t doing it, then somebody has to step up and do it,” the girl said.
It’s the same attitude that characterizes African culture, said O’Neill. She described it as an “upbeat society” — a culture where people sing.
— Emily Greenberg: 529-2542
To learn more about Little Dresses for Africa, go to littledressesforafrica.org or call (734) 637-9064.