Fresno women make, take dresses to Appalachian girls

The Fresno BeeOctober 18, 2013 

The Anglican Church Women organization at St. Columba Church in Fresno is helping girls in Appalachia — known as one of the most impoverished regions in the United States — by sewing dresses.

JoAnn Hagstrom, a parishioner at St. Columba, and Barbara Brotsis, a parishioner at St. James' Anglican Cathedral, recently returned from Manchester, Ky., where they worked with Manchester Christian Church members to distribute 40 dresses to 25 Appalachia girls, ages 2 to 14.

"If we could've put them on boys, we would've," Hagstrom says of the need to help Appalachia children.

The dresses were a mission project for the Dress a Girl Around the World program of Hope 4 Women International. The program has more than 1,600 members sewing throughout the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Poland, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica and other countries.

So far, more than 100,000 dresses have been sewn for girls in nearly 60 countries, including many U.S. cities that are described as having developing world living conditions.

The Anglican Church Women group at St. Columba has been active in Christian outreach for many years, serving at or helping to fund the Poverello House, Samaritan Women (now Rescue the Children), Hope Now for Youth and Good News Clubs.

The Rev. Jim Snell, pastor at St. Columba, says the Dress a Girl Around the World program extends the group's outreach to national and international destinations.

"It is a real, specific, tangible way that the St. Columba women can show God's kindness and share God's love," Snell says.

The dress project started in July in an unusual way.

Candy Axt, a parishioner at St. Columba, attended a sewing group at St. James', where she met Brotsis. The women discovered their husbands were cousins. They talked about expanding the dress project. Brotsis gave a presentation at St. Columba, where about 20 women came on board. Axt became St. Columba's organizer.

"I thought it was a very nice idea to help children who don't have anything, especially little girls who don't have the means to have a pretty dress," Axt says. "I kept thinking of my granddaughter — and how much a pretty dress means to her."

In late July, Axt and her daughter, Beth Rogers, also a St. Columba parishioner, organized sewing sessions on Tuesday nights at St. Columba, where the women also ate dinner together. When some women couldn't make the meetings, they sewed at home.

The Dress a Girl Around the World program provides dress patterns that are simple. The dresses can be made out of pillow cases or a yard of fabric. The Anglican Church Women members also added accessories, such as rick rack ribbon and bright buttons.

Group members gave various reasons for helping.

Maxine Carpenter said she doesn't know how to sew, but didn't let that stop her. Instead, she printed copies of the patterns for others and steam-ironed the rick rack ribbon onto the dresses.

"I came into it, thinking, 'Whatever I could do,' " says Carpenter, who also is a volunteer for Nancy Hinds Hospice Angel Babies.

During sewing sessions, Maud Jones would hum the hymn "Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee." She and others prayed over each dress.

The group set a Sept. 26 deadline. About 80 dresses were made. Then, Hagstrom and Brotsis stuffed about half of them into their suitcases and headed to the Appalachia area on Sept. 27.

Manchester is a rural town of about 1,000 residents. In the hollers, many homes don't have running water, only outhouses.

The Manchester church organized a barbecue outreach with a bounce house, where Hagstrom and Brotsis unpacked the dresses.

With the first dress came chaos, Hagstrom remembers. All the girls crowded in, wanting a dress.

Brotsis remembers a little girl, Emily, 2, who tried on four dresses before she found just the right fit and look.

"We got to meet some parents," Brotsis says. "No matter how poor they are, they still want the best for their kids."

Hagstrom says she learned a lot from the mission project.

"Whenever you go on a mission, you aren't going on the mission that you think; it's God's mission," she says. "You have to surrender your desires to what God wants."

The remaining 40 dresses were shipped to the Dress a Girl Around the World headquarters.

Hagstrom says the mission project will resume next year. She also believes Anglican Church Women can work to help the Valley poor.

Snell says, "The St. Columba women came together and gave some of their time, talent and treasure, their creativity and skill, to fashion dresses for young girls who need them. All who participated were drawn together, and shared the experience of being the Body of Christ, in mission to show Jesus' love. But more than that, they have a stronger sense of their connection as a Christian member in a worldwide family."


The reporter can be reached at or (559) 441-6304.

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