Little dresses make big splash in Africa

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Carol MacDonald recalls the picture that inspired a thousand dresses.

“The little girl wore a black and white zebra-striped dress with little ribbons on it. She had a rose in her hair, and one hand on her hip. She had a brilliant smile, and this look of ‘Oh, look at me,’” said the outgoing moderator of Presbyterian Women in the Pittsburgh Presbytery.

She saw the picture on a visit to Bethany Presbyterian Church in Bridgeville, where the women had made dresses for several years for girls in Haiti and Mexico. In November, their mission changed when Little Dresses for Africa was launched as a national Presbytery-wide project and was adopted locally as the moderator’s project.

“I’m over the moon. Almost every church is making dresses," Mrs. MacDonald said. "I’m so thrilled so many people were involved.”

The dresses are being collected from local churches and delivered to Third Presbyterian Church in Shadyside, where they will be displayed at the Presbyterian Women's 26th Spring Gathering.

“We have unpacked dresses in all sizes with different designs," said Mary Ellen Kirby of Stanton Heights, the incoming moderator, who will take office this weekend. "It took three and a half hours just to hang up the dresses made by one church,”

Dresses also have been made in retirement community sewing circles. One woman sewed them by hand while tending an ill husband, and another woman sewed while recovering from breast cancer. After receiving fabric donations, Millie Mills, a member of the Northmont Presbyterian Church in McCandless, challenged herself to make 100 dresses.

“I had the fabric, and just kept going. The simple sundress strikes your creativity. You start making them and then start thinking, ‘Oh, I could do this, or this,’” says Mrs. Mills, of McCandless, who made all of the dresses in three months with the help of her sister, Lily Hoy of Shadyside.

Sewers at Union Presbyterian Church of Robinson made more than 300 dresses, including ones made from an unfinished dust ruffle and exotic fabric from Hawaii.

“We had 23 women who met on a Saturday," said Sally Andrews or Robinson. "People were so excited about it. It brought people together."

Rachel O’Neill of Brownstown, MI., founded the program eight years ago following a mission trip with her husband to Africa 

“The women gathered and prepared food and when it was time to eat, they went to the end of the line," she said by telephone. "If there wasn’t enough food, they didn’t eat. It was in that moment that I decided I wanted to do something to honor those girls to feel worthy.”

Since then, more than 2.5 million dresses have been shipped from their Michigan center to 48 countries in Africa, and 27 other impoverished countries worldwide. Thousands more have been sent directly by the makers.

“The dresses are the ambassadors that open doors to meet other needs,” she said.

“The Presbyterians have been wonderful. They have a wonderful heart and are very active, but we are interdenominational, and always accept dresses in the name of Jesus,” Mrs. O’Neill said.

She said shipping is a challenge as a box of 100 dresses can cost more than $140 to mail. The dresses often are transported with mission teams and some Mrs. O'Neill takes herself. She said sometimes people tuck in a check with the dresses to cover shipping costs.

The project also is an annual event at the Community Presbyterian Church of Ben Avon, where an all-day sew-in produced 28 dresses assembled by people of all ages, said project coordinator Jodi Foster.

Eighty dresses, made by the members of the Bethany Presbyterian Church, won’t be at the gathering. They have already been given to girls in Haiti, transported in the suitcases of missionaries.

“I just keep thinking how this has been such a wonderful way to get so many women involved,” said Mrs. MacDonald.


Jane Miller, freelance writer:

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