New Ulm group has made 7,500+ dresses for African kids
A group of participants from Community and Seniors Together (CAST) of New Ulm, a United Way agency, have been volunteering their time and talents the past five years to help make Little Dresses for Africa.
Little Dresses for Africa is a nonprofit Christian-based organization that provides relief to vulnerable children throughout 47 African countries and in 17 other countries around the globe. Founded in 2008 by Rachel O’Neill, of Brownstown, Mich., the organization has collected and delivered over 4.5 million little dresses and britches for boys.
According to the Little Dresses website, O’Neill’s idea for sewing dresses out of pillowcases and other fabrics came after a mission trip to Malawi, Africa, where she saw the tattered dresses on the children she met and decided to do what she could to change things for the youth living in the villages she visited.
The dresses for girls and shorts for boys are distributed through orphanages, churches and schools with a mission empathizing that every child is worthy of love and assistance.
Since February 2011, more than 7,500 dresses from New Ulm have been sewn and sent to girls in South Africa, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Guiana, Tanzania, Gambia, Kenya, Sudan and Liberia. In addition, another 1,500 pairs of shorts for young boys have been delivered as well.
Besides Africa, dresses and shorts from New Ulm have gone to destinations in the countries of Haiti, India, Guatemala, Philippines, Mexico, Jamaica and Honduras plus to locations in the Appalachian Mountains and South Dakota in the U.S.
New Ulm residents Annette Perry and Mary Warner have been instrumental in assuming leadership roles for the local organization, having started the effort along with good friend Georgine Rubie who passed away last fall and is deeply missed.
“We were just three people who were interested in the project, and a month later we had a bunch of volunteers who wanted to help out,” Mary explained. “We certainly believe the good Lord has helped us with this too. It’s an honest and substantial way to help the well-being of others less fortunate.”
“We had an Extension Group that decided to try something different, a new venture,” said Annette. The Little Dresses project also fits well with the CAST programming mission to help seniors stay active, maintain health, fitness, vitality and independence.
A group of about 140 women meet twice a month to sew fabric, and Perry and Warner have instructed people of all ages on how to make the dresses from patterns.
In addition, elderly care residents, some of them in their 90s, living in facilities around New Ulm, and younger people, such as Girl Scouts, have become involved. Plus, New Ulm has become a collection point for some area community church groups who are also creating and contributing garments to be added to the boxed shipments of dresses and shorts.
Besides the New Ulm organization, there are many groups of volunteers from across the United States who are now sewing, too. The Little Dresses project has expanded from groups located in 27 states to all 50 states in the last five years with headquarters based in Michigan.
Perry received the patterns for sewing the dresses from a business in Mankato and she said the various sizes are relatively simple and easy to follow. The color of fabric and numerous designs reflect the creativity of those who make the dresses. She recalled that Georgine’s trademark was that each dress she made had to have a little bow put on it.
The dresses are also decorated with a pocket and lace. “The dresses that are shipped from New Ulm and all must have a pocket put on them because we learned the children like them for carrying things,” Warner explained.
Mary, who has personally made 1,697 dresses, meticulously keeps a record book for the organization with a myriad of details that includes everything from supplies in stock to the sewing kits she assembles and inserts into plastic bags. She also updates shipping destination statistics on a hand-written poster attached to the wall. The country Uganda leads the way receiving 1,364 dresses, followed by 1,101 to Sierra Leone, while 200 pairs of britches also have gone to that country.
“We’re kind of like a little store here,” Annette stated. “The kits Mary puts together have all the things needed to make a dress if someone wants to do the sewing at home.” Mary’s records show that as many as 44 kits have gone out in one day. On another day 60 to 70 completed dresses were returned to their workshop headquartered in a previous kindergarten room located in the former junior high building, which is the site of the District 88 Administration Center and State Street Theater.
Mary joked that she’s the self-appointed senior accountant for the group. “I’m retired, but I think I work harder at this than any other job I’ve had,” she laughed.
Mary is grateful for the 140 New Ulm participants and said, “They’re just wonderful; their hearts are in the right place.” She estimated that about three dozen are regular sewers, and currently ,there are over 1,400 dresses of all sizes hanging on clothes racks or neatly folded in boxes waiting for shipment.
In the beginning, the locally made dresses were sent to Wisconsin and Michigan to be packed and delivered to Africa. “We have a small budget through CAST, which is our sponsor, and donations from the Optimist Club or those people who can’t sew but want to help financially,” Mary explained.
But eventually the shipping costs to the Little Dresses warehouse in Michigan became too expensive, and the New Ulm group now relies on an amazing response for distribution from others, including mission workers and travelers to foreign countries who take along boxes of dresses to deliver.
Annette said a man from Delano brings a big shipment with him each summer when a group from the Catholic Diocese in that area travels to Africa. Annette and her husband once took 527 dresses and 119 pairs of shorts to Fairmont to be loaded onto a boxcar of the Orphan Grain Train to be shipped to Rochester and then to a warehouse for delivery in the U.S.
Mary recalled a time when Jason Davis of the On The Road with Jason Davis (KSTP) television show was in Sleepy Eye doing a story. “When he found out about us he took 250 little dresses with him on a trip to India.”
Another time Mary’s son, who lives in Buffalo, saw a semitruck in a church parking lot with the name Jamaica on it. “Before that truck left Buffalo we had some boxes and suitcases full of dresses as part of the load,” she noted.
The women say that when the dresses leave the workshop they really don’t worry about the destination. “Everyone we sew for matters to us, and we say a prayer over our dresses for a safe journey each time we send them out,” added Annette. To date, they’ve had 53 shipments of girls’ dresses and boys’ britches go out to various places around the world, with the first 68 dresses going to Haiti.
Although passionate about their Little Dresses work, Mary and Annette know it wouldn’t be successful without the help of others. “Whatever we achieve it’s through the cooperation and teamwork of everyone involved who make good use of resources that might otherwise be thrown away,” Mary stated.
The group received a Minnesota Community Education Association project of the year state award in 2011, but they don’t seek recognition for doing their dressmaking work. The best reward is receiving photos of smiling faces of little girls many miles away wearing dresses as positive feedback for their efforts. “That’s all the reward we need. It’s just precious and an inspiration for us,” Mary commented.
“For us at the senior center, we’re excited about this project,” Annette said. “The response from the community has been overwhelming, and it’s a year-around effort.”
Mary, who has held area church group seminars to get people interested in Little Dresses, said the common goal is just to help somebody. “We never imagined that this would take off like it has, and anyone can come to see what we do or call us. Our door is always open to the public.”
Painted on the former school hallway as part of a mural near their room is a slogan which reads: “Coming together as one, to make a difference, uniting New Ulm and the world,” which we adopted as our mission statement to responsibly use our talents to make things better for others,” Mary said.
The New Ulm Little Dresses location is open the first and third Wednesday of each month from 9-11 a.m. It will be moved to a different building later this year as changes in District 88 education facilities will occur in conjunction with the construction of a new high school scheduled to open this fall.
For more information on how to become involved or donate fabric, call the CAST office at 507-354-3212 or go to the website LittleDressesforAfrica.org.