For the past six years, women have turned pillowcases into dresses for girls in Haiti, Africa
WILMINGTON — For the last several years, one group at St. Helena Parish in Bellefonte has tried to make the lives of little girls a bit brighter through the venerable skill of sewing. The parish’s Sewing Group has been making dresses for children in Haiti and Africa since 2011, and a previous version made clothes and other items for babies.
For the group’s leader, Judy Wilbank, it represents an opportunity to mix two passions: sewing and social ministry. Her home in north Wilmington contains a variety of sewing machines, including a reliable model dating back to 1930 that once belonged to her mother. There are bins of materials for members of the group to choose from, and Wilbank offers lessons to novice sewers.
She estimates that over the last six years the group has shipped more than 500 dresses out of the country. Members work individually at their own pace.
“Not only do we have fun making them, and people make them at their own leisure, but just as important is getting the dresses there,” she said.
Wilbank got the idea for the dresses for Haiti from her sister, whose Florida parish had a similar group. Her sister mailed her the pattern, and the St. Helena effort blossomed from there.
Once enough dresses are made, they have to be shipped to Haiti or Africa. Patricia Curtin White, a Wilmington physician, has taken two bundles of dresses to Haiti when visiting the country for medical missionary trips.
“(Curtin White) said this is like her most precious cargo. The little girls, it’s like you’re giving them a gown. They’re so happy,” Wilbank said.
Kelley Freebery, a member of St. Catherine of Siena Parish near Prices Corner and president of the St. Thomas the Apostle Council of the Columbiettes, had a contact in Africa, giving the sewing group another destination for their work.
The women have also made vestments for priests. The six Columbiette councils in Delaware have collected materials for this effort, Freebery said. Father Stanley Russell, the pastor of St. Helena’s, also donated some of his vestments for seminarians in Africa, Wilbank added.
They also have done work with Stockings for Soldiers, said Joyce Lawless of St. Helena’s Parish. A longtime member of the group, she likes to work with the baby side of things, but also has made the dresses.
“I like quilting. I like to do these projects,” she said. A retired educator, Lawless likes to help young people.
One of the goals of the group is to recruit some younger members. Wilbank is ready to help them learn the basics of sewing.
“One of our aims is we’re trying to get the youth, and I’m more than willing to show them. God gave me the talent, and I’m passing it on. The talent came to me from my mother,” she said. “If you’re given a talent, use it.”
Freebery said the women have connected with Kyle Thompson, the diocesan director of youth ministry, and will try to set something up with him. She also said there are ways to market sewing to youth by showing them how it benefits others, such as with Stockings for Soldiers.
It also could be a way for high school students to fulfill some of the service hours they are required to work, either as a school mandate or for confirmation. The women are ready to help.
“So, at St. Catherine’s, if these kids need service hours, we’ll take the machines to St. Catherine’s and we’ll sew some Stockings for Soldiers or some dresses,” she said.
Her daughter Mallory, a 2011 graduate of Padua Academy, said being able to see a finished product is one way to attract younger participants. “It’s like, ‘I made that.’”
St. Helena’s parishioner Patti Grimes said the group is always open to donations of sewing machines, which allows more people to participate. Grimes, who donated several bins of material after her mother’s death nearly eight years ago, said she likes the delivery aspect of the operation.
“To know that they’ve arrived, that’s the coolest thing to me,” she said. “To see the pictures of the kids and that they’re grateful and that they made their destination.”