To Africa, with love, from Neighbor to Neighbor

May 4, 2012 by

Modeling the "Little Dresses for Africa" at Neighbor to Neighbor last week are, from left, Eisley Gibbons, Alexis Tiller and Olivia Christensen.

When Sandi Hubert of Concordia learned about the Little Dresses for Africa project from a sewing program on television, she knew it was a perfect fit for the women at the Neighbor to Neighbor center.

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“I thought this was an awesome project for the women learning to sew,” she said. So she talked with Sister Jean Befort, one of three sisters who run Neighbor to Neighbor, about recruiting women there to help.

Each dress has a label that reads, "Made with care, especially for you by your friends at Neighbor to Neighbor, Concordia, Kan., USA"

As it turns out, the project is a perfect fit for other reasons, too.

“This is looking out beyond our own little community,” explained Marla Jorgensen, one of more than a dozen women at Neighbor to Neighbor who have embraced the project.

“And people involved are givers, when before they may have been used to being receivers,” added Jean Wilcox, who regularly volunteers to teach sewing at the center.

Neighbor to Neighbor, which opened two years ago and is operated by the Sisters of St. Joseph, serves the needs of women and women with young children throughout the Concordia area. And while it is designed as a welcoming center for all women, many of the regulars are women without many resources and in need of social services.

So this may be their first opportunity to give back, Wilcox said, and to join others from across the country in a grassroots project with big results.

What began in 2007 as a Michigan woman’s plan to make 1,000 dresses for the little girls she had seen while on a safari vacation in Kenya has grown into a worldwide collaboration of volunteers and donations. The idea is as simple as one neighbor helping another.

Little Dresses for Africa deliver a small dose of hope and love to girls across the poorest regions of Africa (and now, around the world), in the form of simple sheaths sewn by volunteers using mostly donated fabric and notions and then delivered by individual travelers — whether tourists, mission workers and even a National Geographic photographer — to wherever they’re needed.

So far more than 560,000 dresses from all 50 states have been distributed in 31 African countries so far, according to Little Dresses for Africa founder Rachel O’Neill of Brownstown, Mich. The nonprofit Christian organization has also sent dresses to Honduras, Guatemala, The Philippines, Cambodia, Mexico and Haiti, as well as poverty-stricken areas in the United States.

The women at Neighbor to Neighbor have as their goal adding 100 dresses to that number. They are more than half way there.

The “end product” — sometimes called “pillowcase dresses” because the simplest way to make them is from pillowcases — are brightly colored sheaths with ribbon ties at each shoulder.

To create them, the downtown center has become something of a mini-manufacturing line: On a recent afternoon, it includes one woman to cut the fabric, another to sew the seams, another to add binding to the edges and sew on the ties, still another to add the label (“Made with care, especially for you by your friends at Neighbor to Neighbor, Concordia, Kan., USA”) and a final woman to iron and package the dress and its also-handmade matching hair band. (And on this day there are also three little girls on hand to model the finished products.)

The women who have taken part are Jane Christensen, Verna Ferguson-Hamel, Nikki Haist-Richard, Marla Jorgensen, Genny Mihm, Alice Nondorf, Christina Pieri, Lisa Rabago, Cheryl Sulkosky, Ruby Tiller and Jean Wilcox. In addition, Ann Barnett and Lisa Bushett have made matching knit and fabric hair bands and ties to go with every dress.

Virtually all the materials for the dresses have been donated, said Sister Ramona Medina, another of the three sisters who founded Neighbor to Neighbor. “And as word of the work has gotten out, more donations of fabric, thread and binding have come in,” she added.

When the 100 dresses are completed, a woman from Hubert’s church, Concordia Wesleyan, will take as many as she can with her on her mission to the West African nation of Burkina Faso early this summer. Any she can’t take will be sent to the Michigan headquarters for distribution from there.

“One of (Rachel O’Neill’s) sayings is, ‘Joy is a new dress,’” Hubert said. “So this is women in Concordia spreading joy.”

To learn more about Little Dresses for Africa, you can go to the organization’s website:


One Response to “To Africa, with love, from Neighbor to Neighbor”

  1. Faye Huelsmann on May 29th, 2012 11:01 am

    What a wonderful idea for the women as well as for the girls who will receive the dresses.

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