Little did a high school girl know that her interest in sewing a dress for someone less fortunate would result in helping to bring happiness to more than 80 girls in many different countries.
In 2011, Maryann Gubala, then a teenager attending Wilbraham United Church, stumbled across a blog article about Dress a Girl (a program of Hope 4 Women International that supplies new dresses to the poor around the world) and thought that it was a 'neat way' to serve others given her limited resources. Maryann's mom brought it up during a conversation with the church's director of Christian Education, Jeanne Westcott, who thought it was a great mission idea, and the sewing group was born.
About half a dozen sewers are involved at any given time. In addition, there are many others who don't sew but help with the project. For example, a couple from the church ships the finished dresses through their business at no cost to the group. Others donate supplies or money to purchase fabric and notions. Gubala believes it is such generous people who make the whole project possible.
Anyone over the age of 10 is encouraged to join. The group meets twice a month, though many members sew on their own at home as well. Gubala, who is no longer a teen and is now attending college, appreciates the flexibility, so she can still contribute if her schedule gets busy.
When new sewers attend the meeting, the group members teach them basic sewing and walk them through the process of making the dress. Two styles of dresses are sewn: the pillowcase dress and the t-shirt dress. Specific widths and lengths are given on the Dress a Girl website. Sizing is flexible since the pillow case dresses can accommodate a variety of sizes and are easily adjustable. Smaller sizes are made to be extra wide, so that if missionaries run out of larger sizes, the smaller ones can be used as tops by older girls. (One yard of fabric can make one size 8 or 10 dress.) The fabric is usually made of cotton because many recipients live in warm climates and the lighter material is more comfortable. Occasionally, however, they use warmer materials for girls in colder climates.
"Dress a Girl provides dignity to girls, shows them a bit of God's love, and protects them," explains Gubala. "There are so many people living in extreme poverty. Many girls have very worn out clothes and their families can't afford new ones. We also attach a tag to the outside of the dress that shows that the girl is being cared for by an organization. As such, she is less likely to be preyed upon by human traffickers. The dresses can also make a girl who is living under difficult circumstances smile! Just imagine having only rags for clothes and then a person comes up to you and hands you a brand new, handmade, colorful dress."
Gubala wanted to expand the project beyond the walls of the church and when Westcott moved to the Federated Community Church in Hampden, it was the perfect opportunity to grow the group. "I had previously helped form a combined Confirmation class with both churches, since both classes were small in size.," said Westcott. "I got to know the pastor, who was fairly new to the post, and was introduced to a parishioner there who was doing a pillow case ministry. Knowing there were sewers in the church and seeing that their space was larger than the one we were using at Wilbraham United, we asked to utilize the space."
"I would like to see Dress a Girl expand beyond the borders of Wilbraham and Hampden and even beyond the denomination," said Gubala. "I originally didn't even think of making it a group project when I started sewing on my own. I planned to make one shipment of dresses and be done. God had other plans however; and I'm thankful that He did."
"As an intergenerational ministry we want to include as many young people as we can to learn the skill of machine stitching and hopefully give them the opportunity to embrace the love and enthusiasm Maryann and I both have for Dress A Girl and Hope 4 Women International -- passing the torch, as it were," said Westcott. "Our goal is to open the group to the public at large, church affiliated or not, to share in community and the love of giving that Christ Jesus embodies."
Gubala and Westcott have already spread their enthusiasm outside the commonwealth. When they both attended a Christian music festival in Maine, their enthusiastic conversations about the project piqued the interests of several people, who are now contemplating starting Dress a Girl groups at their own churches.
"In Matthew 25:40, Jesus says 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me,'" said Gubala. "In many of the countries that are served by Dress a Girl, people live in utter poverty and girls are valued less than boys. In other words, many of these recipients are the 'least' that Jesus talks about. Throughout his ministry on earth, Jesus frequently speaks about serving the poor. This is just one of many ways in which we can do it."
You can reach Maryann at the Wilbraham church office at (413) 596-2511 firstname.lastname@example.org or directly at email@example.com. Jeanne can be reached at the Hampden church at (413) 566-3711 firstname.lastname@example.org . Visit their Dress a Girl Facebook page for pictures and additional information.