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Converting pillow cases to dresses for Haiti

How much can one little dress do?

When it's made from a 100 percent cotton pillow case and lovingly trimmed with rick rack and ribbons, it can delight a little girl in Haiti who may never have had a dress.

And it might keep her safe from rape or kidnapping.

That's why Fran Lodder is spearheading a project at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Comforter, in Lutherville, that has dozens of volunteers sewing little dresses destined for Haiti. As of Monday, Aug. 15, they'd made 100 dresses.

Lodder, who lives in Elkridge Estates, patterned the project after one launched by Grace Episcopal Church, in Mansfield, Ohio, in March 2010. Since then, the project has spread to 21 states and produced thousands of dresses.

"Even before the earthquake (in Haiti in 2010), things were in bad shape because of the poverty," said Betty Diemer, who started the Mansfield project. "It's common for children under 11 to run around in nothing but underpants.

"Children had a hard time being clothed. If there were two little boys in the family, there might be only one shirt and one pair of shorts, and one of them would wear the shirt and the other the shorts."

There are still more than 600,000 homeless Haitians living in squalid tent cities following the earthquake, according to news reports. Children and women are subject to rape and other violence.

Lodder had seen literature about what happens to little girls in Haiti not wearing dresses: They were more likely to be raped, kidnapped or murdered.

"They are safer if they are in dresses and appear to be well-cared-for children, not street orphans," she said.

She had no trouble soliciting volunteers for a marathom sew-in at the parish hall Aug. 9. From 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. that day, volunteers converted donated pillowcases and fabric into 55 dresses, and paired them with donated, store-bought cotton panties.

More than 50 people showed up over the course of the day to sew, iron, cut, attach buttons, add trim and thread elastic.

"Who wouldn't want little girls to have pretty dresses?" Lodder said. "It just touched people and they came."

This sewing group was multi-generational, with many bringing their own sewing machines. It included seven children.

"One of the young boys learned how to use a sewing machine, and two 6-year-olds sewed buttons on," Lodder said.

Timonium resident Barbara Bull brought her grandson Jake, 10, and grandaughter Jordan, 7.

"They cut, ironed, sewed buttons and sewed seams," she said. "I just guided them. In half a day they made two dresses."

Lodder said she was overwhelmed by how creative the volunteers were, and by their desire to make the dresses pretty. "It was really a fun day," she said.

She still has enough donated material to make an additional 100 dresses, she said. She's thinking of holding half-day sessions on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and of assembling kits for people to take home.

"They'd have the joy of completing a dress," she said.

She knows the dresses will be going to the children who need them — and she's confident they won't end up on the black market in Haiti, because the Florida diocese is handling the distribution, which is non-denominational.

The dress project is doable by any group, Lodder said. She's hoping to get an article in the newsletter for the Maryland Episcopal Diocese to encourage other churches to do the same thing.

"It's easy and it's not terribly expensive," she said. "Projects like this remind people there is fun and joy in giving."

Those who wich to help may call Holy Comforter at 410-252-2711 and leave a message for Fran Lodder.

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