By FARRAH DUFFANY, Record-Journal of Meriden
CHESHIRE, Conn. (AP) _ After Janine Mahan filled a hundred mailboxes with fliers, emailed her friends and family and used her personal Facebook page to spark interest, the giant Rubbermaid bin that sat in the driveway of her Cheshire home was filled to the brim with pillowcases every day for three weeks.
It was September 2010, and Mahan was trying to spread the word about Dress a Girl Around the World and about a sewing event held by Cornerstone Church, in Cheshire. She’s been spreading the word and making dresses ever since.
Dress a Girl is a nonprofit organization that relies on volunteers to help create dresses from pillowcases and distribute them to girls in poverty around the world.
Mahan had received an email from her women’s ministry leader, Pauline Gervickas, saying that they were looking for volunteers to help make pillowcase dresses at an event. Mahan said she thought about the email and considered that she knew how to sew and was pretty crafty. She clicked on the Dress a Girl website in the email to find out more.
“Once I saw (pictures of) the little girls I was really moved,” she recalled. “I just saw something in the little girls and it spoke to me.”
She started to brainstorm ways to get pillowcase donations before the event, which led her to place a bin in her driveway.
“I said everybody knows where I live, come drop off your pillowcases,” Mahan said. “Then I started thinking, if you have pillowcases you want to get rid of you’re probably not going to do anything with the sheets and sheets are just big pieces of fabric, so why don’t you give me the sheets as well?”
Gervickas, who doesn’t know how to sew, told Mahan that she prayed and knew that if she wanted to help Dress a Girl that God would provide her with someone who could help her. She told Mahan, “that person is you.”
Dress a Girl Around the World was started to help the many girls in poverty around the world who are in need of clothing. The organization was founded by Rachel Eggum Cinader of Arizona in October 2009. She is also the director of Hope 4 Women International, the parent organization of Dress a Girl. Hope 4 Women focuses on raising the dignity of women of all ages, helping them become self-sufficient by celebrating womanhood.
Eggum Cinader was on a trip to Uganda in 2009 for Hope 4 Women when her plans changed.
“The original plan was to sponsor women in Uganda under Hope 4 Women and teach them traits. We brought pillowcases over to teach them how to make dresses out of pillowcases and were asking for donations to bring over,” Eggum Cinader said.
Once people started hearing about the donations, it sparked interest. Eggum Cinader said people wanted to sew dresses for the little girls and they began calling and asking how to make the dresses. From there, Dress a Girl was born.
The first box, of 50 hand-sewn dresses, was sent to Honduras in October 2009. Since then, Dress a Girl has sent 65,000 dresses to little girls in 56 different countries. There are now 22 representatives for Dress a Girl in the United States and more around the world.
Mahan is the Connecticut state representative for Dress a Girl. As a representative, Mahan took on a lot of responsibilities. Some of them include raising money for supplies and shipping costs, speaking about Dress a Girl to drum up interest, organizing sewing events and answering calls or emails with people’s questions about the organization.
“I am the point person in Connecticut or surrounding states,” Mahan said. “My position would be to take in dresses from people who are more local to me than they are to Rachel in Arizona.”
Mahan said the nearest representative to her is in upstate New York. Mahan collects dresses made from women in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and other nearby states that don’t have a Dress a Girl representative.
Both Mahan and Eggum Cinader ask the women sewing the dresses to worry about the quality of the dress, not the quantity.
“We are constantly stressing that we want to give God’s best,” Eggum Cinader said. “If your hands show through, please don’t use that pillowcase. It doesn’t give dignity to have see-through dresses. We make sure that we give quality dresses and not dresses that are just good enough. We stress the fact that these girls may only get this one dress for years.”
Another important part of the program the organization stresses is how the dresses are shipped. Instead of placing the dresses in boxes and shipping them to another country and not knowing where they’ll end up, representatives and Eggum Cinader insist that a person bring the dresses with them to make sure they make it to the girls.
Mahan said she has found college students, relatives, people in a missionary group or an organization and others traveling to places of poverty who offer to pack the dresses with them and hand-deliver them. Mahan and Eggum Cinader ask for photos to be emailed to them of the girls in their new dresses. So far, it has worked out well.
“That’s what drives us all on to continue. It’s inspirational to us to see the little faces and little girls when they get their first new pretty dress and many of them have never owned a dress before,” Mahan said. “Most of them are dressed in rags or torn clothing and some are not dressed properly in anything at all. So, to get a new garment that is handmade with love is really special.”
Since Dress a Girl started, Eggum Cinader has heard from village pastors in Uganda that giving the dresses to the little girls raises their level in society. By putting the Hope 4 Women label on the bottom of each dress, girls are also being saved from being violated and put into sex trafficking.
“That’s what we’ve been told,” Eggum Cinader said. “When we put a label on a dress it indicates that an organization is looking after the girls and they are under the impression that it saves the girls from being violated.”
Although there are no statistics to back up the claim, Eggum Cinader and Mahan believe that if it saves one girl, it’s worth it.
Mahan recently held a sew-a-long at the Cornerstone Church. Six women volunteered three hours of their day to bagging dozens of dresses to be shipped, ironing on labels, and sewing dresses together.
Josephine Lifrieri has been helping make dresses since last August and was one of the volunteers at the event who sewed a handful of dresses for the cause.
“I think it’s wonderful that you can make a difference for someone who is across the world,” Lifrieri said.
Mahan is going to continue to plan sewing events and doesn’t plan on stopping the efforts for Dress a Girl anytime soon.
“There’s a saying in Africa,” Mahan said. “If you teach a man you’ve taught one man. If you teach a woman you’ve taught a family.”
Dress a Girl Around the World program, http://www.dressagirlaroundtheworld.com , or the Dress a Girl Connecticut Facebook page.
Information from: Record-Journal, http://www.record-journal.com
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)