, 2014


St. Andrews mission group pursues
Little Dresses for Africa project

by Audrey Thomasson

They call themselves the St. Andrews Sew-and-Sews. Ranging in age from 15 to nearly 100, this growing circle of women demonstrate how the power of Christian love and a sewing machine can help mend lives for children in Africa.

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But it brought some unexpected results, as well.

It all started when St. Andrews Presbyterian Church’s new women’s mission coordinator Pat Seamster was visiting a church in Richmond’s West End and saw 12 homemade dresses on display that were headed for Africa to clothe young girls orphaned by the H.I.V. and A.I.D.’s epidemic.

“These young girls are orphaned and have had to become family caretakers to their siblings,” said Seamster. Hearing their story and seeing the sweet dresses, she was hooked. Seamster—yes, that is her real name—decided to approach the church about participating in the sewing project.

“But I wondered: Does anyone still sew? Would there be support?”

If a big church in Richmond could sew 12 dresses, Seamster decided to set her sights on six.

Mission coordinator Kaye Ortiz suggested a sewing day and members Linda and Ethel Bolle made a couple of dresses which were displayed in the church fellowship hall to promote the event.

It was also covered in the church bulletin and caught the eye of longtime church member Marydel Flint.

Flint, who lives at Rappahannock Westminster-Canterbury (RW-C), sent a donation to help with expenses and mailing.

“She has been a strong supporter of Presbyterian women as long as I’ve known her,” said Seamster. “Getting that donation right at the beginning was a real inspiration for us.”

Pastor Tom Coye’s wife, Linda, contributed a simple pattern, put together 19 sewing kits that included embroidery and other adornments and brought material for sew day. Marilyn Warren saw the kits and went home and made 15 more.

On July 15, eight women arrived with six sewing machines, and a sewing circle of work began. They completed 21 dresses in nearly five hours.

Meanwhile, word was spreading beyond the walls of the church and things were happening that extended the sewing circle in unexpected ways.

“Two ladies from RW-C stopped by to explain that their sewing machines were too heavy to lug to the church, so they made three dresses at home and delivered them that day,” reported Seamster. When they saw the kits, they took a few and posted a note on RW-C’s bulletin board about the project. One resident responded by contributing an armload of material.

A quilting group which meets at the church also saw the display and requested kits. A mother and her 15-year-old daughter picked up kits for several dresses. Others made contributions. Many of the seamstresses contributed their own material. And members they hadn’t seen in years came forward to offer their help. A couple of weekenders from Northern Virginia also stopped in for kits.

“After two days, our dress count was 30. At eight days—39. At 12 days we had 44, then 50...The dresses were coming in so fast I lost count,” she said.

Seamster took six of the dresses to RW-C to show Flint.

“Well, I declare,” said Flint. “I just can’t pick a favorite. How many did you get?”

When Seamster reported the final tally was 76, Flint replied, “Want to go for a hundred? Why, that’s just 24 more, honey. I can’t see well enough to sew anymore, but if the Sew and Sews want to make more dresses, I’ll be glad to reach down in my pocket for more money.”

Seamster’s immediate thought was a resounding “no.” But when she woke the following Sunday, a thought came to her: “What if we made 24 more dresses by October 2—Flint’s 100th birthday?”

She shared the idea with Linda Coye, who made an additional trip to Richmond to purchase more material and assemble more kits.

When the “new” goal is achieved, the kits will be shipped out to a handling center for the Christian organization Little Dresses for Africa in Michigan.

According to Seamster, the costs for mailing 100 dresses to the center is about $145. But the cost will go well beyond that for mailing to Africa where they will be distributed to remote impoverished villages.

While Little Dresses for Africa also has a companion mission, Britches for Boys, orphaned girls are the most devalued and abused in the culture, according to Rachel O’Neill, the organization’s founder.

O’Neill was on a mission trip to Malawi, Africa, with fellow church members from Trenton Church of Christ in Michigan when she was inspired to start the organization.

“Most young girls have only one dress, which they wear until it is literally in shreds,” she said. “Simple dresses...distributed through the orphanages, churches and schools in Africa, bring hope to young girls who live in an otherwise bleak environment. It plants in the hearts of little girls that they are worthy.”

The little dresses are making a difference to children in Africa and have been extended to other third-world countries. The project has had additional benefits, as well.

“Distribution of dresses also allows for Bible classes, children’s camps and informal teaching” for recipients, said Seamster. “But it’s done so much more for us.” Because of the tough economy, people who cannot afford to make monetary donations are able to participate.

“It’s allowed all of us to feel useful,” she added. “And for our church...it’s gone well beyond what mankind could have orchestrated.”

The church recently performed a “blessing of the dresses” during a Sunday service.


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