20,000 girls around the world wearing colorful dresses sewn by Big Island volunteers
November 26, 2023, 1:00 AM HST
Waimea resident Arlene Block is making a difference in the lives of girls all over the world — with her sewing machine.
She recently held up her latest creations of brightly colored dresses, some made from light blue and turquoise green fabric with sea turtles and fish and others made with cloth featuring bright pink floral patterns. One dress has a starfish embroidered on the pocket.
Since 2016, Block has lovingly sewn 6,342 dresses for the local nonprofit Dress A Girl West Hawaiʻi, which operates under the umbrella of Dress A Girl Worldwide. It’s a Temple, Ariz.-based campaign that was founded in 2006 under Hope 4 Women International.
“Every little girl in the world should have a dress that’s new, all hers, and it be bright and colorful,” said Jeannette Vater, coordinator at Dress a Girl West Hawai‘i.
“Dresses go to Micronesia, Mexico, Guatemala, Madagascar, Kenya, Ethiopia, Italy, Turkey, Ukraine, Iraq, China, Thailand, Philippines, South Korea and Cambodia, to name a few. We work locally as well. We’ve worked with family and child services and we sent over 1,100 dresses to Maui after the fires.”
Dress a Girl West Hawai‘i was founded in 2008. Since Vater became coordinator of the group in 2018, the group has sent more than 20,000 dresses across the world.
Block, who is retired, has been the group’s biggest contributor, with no plans to slow down.
“I make two dresses a day,” the Waimea woman said. “Some rainy days, I’ll sew more.”
The group sews dresses for girls ages 2 through 14.
“I like to add creativity to it, too,” Block said. “I pick out a piece of fabric and I see what matches. What kind of lace should I use? It’s a matter of using what I have. It’s just fun putting things together. Sometimes I get on eBay and buy what I need. It’s part of my charity and my love.”
The nonprofit relies solely on donations from the community and fabric stores, funding from the Living Stones Church and grants.
“The public donates most of the material,” said Vater, who is also retired. “People call us and say we have extra fabric or machines. Discount Fabric Warehouse in Kona has been very good to us as well. And the rest? We purchase it. We live and die on donations and grants.”
They send suitcases of dresses, and recently, boys shorts, with missions groups, church groups, Doctors Without Borders, and other ‘stewardesses’ to deliver the clothes to children in third world countries.
“We work closely with the University of the Nations— every few months they send out of team of students who study abroad and they help deliver the dresses,” Vater said.
An added benefit of dressing children in brightly colored clothes is it appears to help combat human trafficking.
“It wasn’t what we set out to do,” Vater said. “But we had mission groups return and tell us that it was helping cut down on human trafficking. A little girl in a brightly colored dress with a label is less likely to be picked up on the street. It looks like someone is watching them, someone cares.”
The organization has two sewing groups that meet once a week to sew as a community (at Living Stones Church in Kona and Waikōloa).
The group sews every Tuesday at Living Stones Church from 1 to 4 p.m. “Anyone is welcome,” Vater said.
For Adrienne Pipes, who specializes in making pockets, the best part is socializing with other women each week.
“I love the chit-chatting and seeing everybody,” she said. “Sometimes we carpool together.”
Pipes has sewn about 5,000 dresses since joining the group the first year it was started.
“We needed someone to make pockets and it just saves time if someone else does them,” Pipes said. “We always have a little leftover fabric. As long as it’s 6 inches wide, we can make a pocket. I also buy trim and put trim of the dresses.”
Lynn Rinker, a Kona resident, just joined the group and loves sewing with Hawaiian motifs.
“I figured I love to sew, so why not?” she said. “I devote most of my time to that.”
For anyone looking to get involved, contact Jeannette Vater at 808-315-2479. Fabric and sewing donations can be dropped off at Living Stones Church Kona. Donations can also be made via Venmo to @Dressagirlwesthawaii.