Imagine a world in which every girl — from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe and everywhere in between — owned a brand new dress.
This is the mission of the Dress a Girl Around the World campaign under Hope 4 Women International. The non-denominational independent Christian organization was founded in 2006, and Dress a Girl began in 2009. Since then, the missionary has delivered more than 500,000 dresses to girls in 81 countries.
Each dress is handmade — and personally delivered — by volunteers.
“So many women like to sew and create, and inherently we want to do something for someone else, so this was just a wonderful opportunity to tie it into something that we love to do and where there's this huge need,” said Claudia Wahlberg, who runs a local branch of the organization.
Wahlberg learned about Dress a Girl in Santa Cruz and started a group at Northwest Church in Fresno. She asked for donations of fabric and trim and was overwhelmed with the response.
The group now hosts a monthly Sew Fest from 1 to 4 p.m. on the third Friday of each month in the Fig Garden library branch.
“We’ve made almost 2,000 dresses in Fresno and we’ve been doing this for almost two years,” Wahlberg said. “We’ve shipped almost 1,400 dresses to Panama, Guatemala, Zambia, Malawi, Haiti, and I think we have a group soon going to Burkina Faso and another group going to Malawi.”
The volunteers pray over the dresses and feel blessed they have the opportunity to create them, she said.
“It’s one of my favorite outreach programs because I love to sew, but in order to volunteer you don’t have to be able to sew,” said Carol Downs, a Clovis resident who spends her free time sewing dresses for Dress a Girl. “When we get together, they have all the supplies. You can put together the kits or you can measure lace or you can measure rick rack. You don’t have to have a sewing talent or a love for it in order to participate; that’s what I like about it.”
The missionary is always in need of donations of fabric, lace, buttons, trims, elastic, thread, gallon-size zip-top bags and cash donations for purchasing items at wholesale. People who clean out their craft rooms often donate much of their fabric stash or that of deceased relatives who had a passion for sewing, organizers said.
Of course, volunteers are always needed.
“There are probably 15 women and men who touch each one of these dresses, from buying the fabric to sewing them to delivering it,” Wahlberg said. “Over each step of it, everyone is thinking about the girl who is going to get it.”
Organizers are often asked, “why only girls?” Wahlberg is quick to answer:
“Girls have it tough,” she said. “They have it just a little bit more difficult in foreign countries. I know here (in the U.S.) we have a glass ceiling and we’re breaking it, but in foreign countries girls are really not well regarded. They are the workers in the household. When they are old enough to have children, that’s what they do. Education is denied. Oftentimes they're at the back of the classroom if they are even able to come in. So we want to target them and just do one thing well.”
The dresses are made from high-quality 100 percent cotton because they will likely be washed in rivers, not machines, Wahlberg said.
“And we try to sew them in pressure points over and over so that they’re sturdy,” she added.
With hundreds of dresses stuffed in their suitcases, volunteers tag along with missionary groups and service groups traveling to foreign countries to hand-deliver the dresses to impoverished girls, organizers said.
“That’s the cool thing, is that with this program we’re not just the ‘wonderful Americans’ who make this thing and give it to them and they have no use for it,” said volunteer Charlotte Graham, who went to Guatemala last year to deliver dresses sewn locally.
“About 300 little girls got their very first, brand-new, made-for-them dress,” she said, describing the “pillowcase” style dresses in bright colors with sturdy pockets. “The first thing they did when they put them on was put their hands in their pockets.”
Each dress is stitched with a Dress A Girl label on the front, which, according to ministry leaders, acts as a deterrent to sex trafficking.
“They feel like the children who are wearing these dresses are less likely to be preyed on by trafficking predators because they give the appearance that someone is watching,” explained Graham. “They’ve got a nice dress and there’s a label on it, so they’re affiliated with something.”
Beyond this layer of protection from predators, the dresses offer “a bit of sunshine around the world,” Wahlberg said.
In 2015, Wahlberg and four other volunteers took 400 dresses to Haiti, the most impoverished country in the Western Hemisphere, and passed them out to girls in four schools.
“Just the opportunity to be able to choose something — that’s not usually an opportunity there,” she said, describing the looks on the girls’ faces when they were given the chance to pick out their own dresses. “They would just light up and be so joyful to have something that is brand new.”
In Haiti, Guatemala and other third world countries, finding clean water and adequate shelter and food is a daily issue for many girls, Wahlberg said. “There are problems upon problems,” she said. “We know these dresses don’t solve any of those problems, but hopefully they brighten up somebody’s life and give them something positive.”
The dresses are all the same width, but are cut at different lengths to fit girls of all ages. As the girls become taller, their dresses can be worn as blouses.
Miraculously, Wahlberg said, the group has never come home with a single extra dress. “We always have exactly enough.”
After delivering dresses to girls in different schools in Haiti, the group left a school with just one dress leftover.
“We get in the car and the teacher comes running after us. Turns out, there was one girl absent — and there’s that one dress,” Wahlberg said. “We can’t plan that stuff.”
How to help
▪ 100 percent cotton fabric, medium weight, ½ yard minimum
▪ Sturdy lace, rick rack, trims, buttons and fabric yo-yos
▪ Extra wide double fold bias tape (two packages of the same color)
▪ ½ -inch wide elastic
▪ Thread: cotton, polyester or blend (no rayon or silk)
▪ Gallon-size zip-lock bags
To donate, contact Charlotte Graham at firstname.lastname@example.org or Claudia Wahlberg at email@example.com.