APPLETON –– Old pillowcases for new dresses.
Sounds almost like something out of the Arabian Nights. But making pillowcases into dresses for children in Haiti is how a couple of dozen people spent part of weekend at St. Thomas More Parish.
Scissors cut bright fabric while half a dozen sewing machines stitched pieces together and sewed elastic into pillowcases to make dress tops.
“Dressing God’s Children” is the brainchild of Karen Rickert. She had been on mission trips to Honduras and to the Dominican Republic. In January, she took part in a work mission to the Green Bay diocesan mission at Elias Pina in the Dominican Republic.
During the stay, she arranged to take a two-day trip over the border into Haiti. She went with a Dominican sister from Brazil, Sister Maria Marciano, whose order works in the area.
“That was so emotional, to see the destitution (in Haiti),” Rickert said. “The kids over there, all of those under 8 are running around with no clothes on. They are so poor.”
She found that people displaced from Port au Prince by the January 2010 earthquake were coming to the border area to try to find food and housing.
Rickert was stunned by the conditions and to find people living in mud huts.
“I saw these kids running around naked and it broke my heart,” she told The Compass, newspaper of the Green Bay Diocese. “They only eat once a day and then only seed pods. I thought the Dominican Republic was bad. When I saw this, this was much worse.”
When she and her husband, Jerry, returned to Appleton from the trip, Rickert found herself haunted by those memories and wanting to do more to help.
“I started going online and looking up Haiti,” she said. “What caught my eye were pillowcase dresses.”
She found the idea in Tennessee where some Catholic parishes were making the dresses for earthquake victims in Haiti. The simple pattern used one pillowcase with the seam end cut open. Adding elastic to the open top and seaming in armholes creates a dress.
Rickert, who belongs to her parish’s Service and Justice Commission approached the other members with the idea. They agreed to help. Catholic Financial Life, a faith-based financial services company, will pay for shipping the dresses.
And, through word of mouth, dresses started coming in before the sewing day, held May 7.
“I thought maybe 100 dresses,” Rickert said. “We’re going to have a lot more than that.”
One lady brought five dresses to Rickert’s place of work. A volunteer at St. Vincent de Paul started setting aside pillowcases.
On the sewing day itself, Joanne Delforge brought in eight dresses that she had made after hearing about the project. She had sewn them — including one made from a man’s dress shirt, complete with the pocket — in the space of three weeks.
“I have a slow computer,” Delforge said. “So while the computer is loading up, I go over to my sewing machine. I like to sew and this is a worthwhile project.”
Carol Sullivan brought her daughters, Paige, Ashley, Jaclyn and Amber, May 7 to learn to sew.
“Karen invited us,” Sullivan said. “She’s devoted to the cause, so when she asked for help, I thought it would be fun.”
She also thought it was a life lesson for her girls. “I know I’m teaching them to serve others and giving them opportunities to serve other people, but to be told to do it and to be given an opportunity to do it are two different things.”
Anita Revord had come to the sewing day along her mother, Yvonne Sondgeroth, who was visiting from Illinois. Sondgeroth, a retired seamstress, planned to take several dozen dresses back home to finish by the end of the month.
She also intends to enlist aid in Illinois.
Rickert plans on another sewing day in the fall. She’s thinking that they might make tank tops and/or shorts for boys on that day. She has also asked St. Thomas More’s pastor, Father Jim Lucas, to bless all the clothing before it is shipped.
“I would just love to go and work with Sister Maria all the time,” Rickert said. “But I have to work to pay for my house.”
So, for now, she’ll just keep the dresses coming. And she and Jerry plan to be on the next diocesan mission trip to the Dominican Republic.