A steady hum from Barbara Richardson’s Singer sewing machine Tuesday afternoon signaled that she was at it again — turning colorful prints, stripes and polka dots into little dresses that will produce smiles a world away from her north Columbus home. Richardson is one of several women from the Highway 69 Church of Christ making simple frocks year-round that have already clothed children in Haiti, Ukraine, the Republic of Georgia and the Republic of Moldova in Eastern Europe, through Operation Ukraine. Another installment of right at 200 garments was delivered by the sewing volunteers to the Columbus nonprofit in mid-February.
“I can’t believe what awesome dresses they’ve made,” said Operation Ukraine founder Kathy Cadden. “This is one great group, showing God’s love. … They are women of action.”
This flurry of sewing began about two years ago, after the women heard Cadden talk about the needs of young girls in a children’s home she had visited. Operation Ukraine collects and distributes relief throughout the world, often in the form of food, clothing, medical supplies and equipment and other goods. A shipment of spoons for an orphanage, a bin of children’s shoes, rehabbed wheelchairs and walkers, plastic buckets for carrying water — or a supply of girls’ dresses from northeast Mississippi — can have a big impact on people subsisting on sparse resources.
“When we heard her, we thought, what can we do to help Kathy, who helps so many?” recalled church member Nancy Harvey. “We told her we’ll make the dresses, and you send them to whoever you need to send them to.”
Richardson estimates the group has produced about 1,000 to 1,500 dresses to date. Cadden has a home for each of them.
“When people know I’m going to be in a village, especially in Haiti, some travel two hours or more by donkey or mule to come see if they can get clothes,” she said. “It’s sad.”
Sometimes on her trips, she added, she will see a child wear her dress all week long.
“A lot of times they don’t have anything else, or that’s the best thing they have,” she said. When supply makes it possible, Cadden gets special joy from being able to offer a little girl a choice, something they rarely have.
“What’s wonderful is to hold up two dresses and say, which one do you want?” she said. “Their eyes light up, to have a choice; they’re giggling. And sometimes I can give them both! It’s like playing Santa Claus.”
Richardson and her friends started out sewing “pillowcase” dresses, simple frocks made out of pillowcases. “But people have donated to us so much material, it’s just evolved,” she said.
About five women are at the core of the dress brigade, but many others assist by contributing material, thread, rick rack, lace and other notions.
The men do their part, too.
“We ask them to bring us their old button-down shirts,” Harvey said. “We cut those down to size to use. It sort of got the men involved; they’ll look at a dress and they’ll say, ‘Oh, that used to be my shirt!'”
Louanne Carson specializes in tracking down fabrics and supplies ripe for donation, sometimes by the truckload.
“I hit up everybody,” she laughed.
Carson praised all the industrious ladies who turn out the garments. In addition to dresses, Gail Reynolds makes some coats for children in colder mountain villages, Carson said. Most of the heavier material donated goes to her for the purpose.
“And Nancy is a true seamstress, and Barbara really knocks them out; she says she can just about make a skirt during a commercial.”
Cadden frequently shares pictures of some of the children receiving their dresses or wearing them, the women said.
“Oh, it feels good to see the photos,” said Richardson. “It’s just a drop in the bucket, but it makes us feel like we’re doing something worthwhile.”
Harvey agreed. “When you see the smile on some of their faces, in something you made yourself … ”
Part of Carson’s motivation to continue comes from envisioning each dress on a child.
“To be honest, I think of the little girls in them,” she said. “We do pockets on our dresses because they say they like them, so we try to put a little piece of lace or eyelet on the pocket to make them special. Many of the children haven’t had anything like that. Just to think, that you could help somebody with such a little effort, to make them feel better.”
Cindy Street assists the dress ministry. Her husband, Jay, serves as preacher at the church in east Columbus.
“There’s no telling how many they’ve made. I’m just so proud of all the ladies that are so dedicated to this work,” she remarked. “I’m very thankful and grateful that they strive for that dedication. I think it’s awesome.”
Cadden said, “They’re doing what God tells us to do — clothe the naked — and they’re not spending tons of money doing it; they’re spending energy and time.”
The Church of Christ ladies aren’t alone in sewing to help Operation Ukraine’s outreach. Others include volunteers in the Mennonite community who are making skirts, and a church in Sulphur, Louisiana, makes garments including pillowcase dresses. Cadden appreciates each one.
“If I had 200,000 dresses, it would take me a week to efficiently give them to people who need them,” she said. “If I had a 53-foot tractor-trailer packed as high as you could pack it with dresses, there are people that need them.”
That reality keeps the ladies of the Highway 69 Church of Christ sewing.
“When we complain, we look at that and think, ‘What in the world am I complaining about?'” said Carson. “We are so blessed.”
Editor’s note: For more information, contact Kathy Cadden through the Operation Ukraine Facebook page, or text to 662-549-2416. To donate fabric or sewing supplies, contact Barbara Richardson, 662-574-3880, or Louanne Carson, 205-346-9472.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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