Sewing machines hum and laughter sprinkles the air in the Sykesville home of Patricia Mattoon on the third Wednesday of each month as a small group of ladies juggle material, elastic and bias binding. They gather to stitch dresses for girls in need around the world.
Mattoon said a conversation at a senior aerobics class at the North Carroll Senior and Community Center in June 2012 started it all. The woman she chatted with prepared dress kits for the Chance to Dance Princess Pillowcase Project, a nonprofit run by June Renner in Hampstead that makes dresses for needy children in developing countries.
Mattoon said she wanted to help. A few weeks later she was stitching dresses for Renner.
In July of that year Mattoon learned that Eric Crisp, the pastor at Keymar Evangelical Wesleyan Church where she is a member, was going to Anse-a-Galets, Haiti. Mattoon got 20 dresses from Renner and stitched another 17 on her own. The pastor delivered the dresses to an orphanage on the island of LaGonave in Haiti.
"It was so dangerous on the streets there that the children only got outdoors once a month when they were taken to [the] medical clinic compound for play," Mattoon said. "Since then a new orphanage has been built and there is an enclosed courtyard for the children. Dresses I sent to that orphanage [at a later date] were the only gifts those girls received for Christmas of 2014."
With help from her 16-year-old granddaughter, Jessica Wheatley, Mattoon continued to sew, adding shorts for little boys. Word spread. Soon requests for dresses were coming directly to her.
"As long as I had fabric, elastic and trim, I kept making the dresses. A few times I ran out of elastic but God always provided in amazing ways. The inspiration to continue came from knowing that I could do a bit of good for girls who needed clothes. I love to sew and this was a way of using that hobby to make a difference in the world," Mattoon said.
Mattoon said every girl should have at least one nice dress, but there is another more important reason to keep sewing: Children in some countries have no decent clothing and sexual abuse of young girls frequently occurs, she said.
In the summer of 2014, Mattoon's friend, Deanna Mikesell, of Littlestown, Pennsylvania, asked if a group of their mutual friends could meet at Mattoon's home to learn how to make the dresses. They met in October of that year and by May 2015, a regular group of 10 to 15 ladies were meeting to sew dresses.
John Kendrick, husband of participant Sandy Kendrick, decided the group needed a website, but that meant they needed a name, so Let's Dress the Girls was born. The group is one of several similar organizations across the United States with the goal of providing clothing to individuals in need throughout the world.
Group members not only sew; they also make up kits with all needed supplies and instructions for others to sew dresses at home. Instructions are online at www.letsdressthegirls.org and on Facebook and Pinterest pages named after the group.
Group members sew on sewing machines named after their donors. Each member has fallen into a needed role.
Jolacy Roebuck, of Eldersburg, makes bias trim and ties for all the dresses from donated sheets on a donated machine.
"I cut the sheets into strips, sew them together and then they go through a little machine with an iron," Roebuck said.
The job is an important one.
"If Jo didn't make the bias we wouldn't have dresses because we would never be able to afford to buy the binding," Sandy said.
Sandy makes up fliers and places ads to solicit needed materials. She said she's been to more than 70 homes to pick up donated fabric and trim, furniture to store sewing supplies, and used sewing machines. Since she started coming to the group in May, she has made more than 350 dresses.
Judi Glass, of Sykesville, also solicits donations, but she does it with handwritten letters to companies across the United States. Through her outreach, she's found the group a permanent supply of elastic.
"Two companies generously provide us with just about all of our elastic," Glass said — Dyno Merchandising in Florida and the South Carolina Elastic Company.
Glass said donations are important because the group operates completely on donations.
"We have no means of income and we don't sell any of our dresses," Glass said. "It is out of our pockets or the hearts of people who believe like we do — that one dress could change a girl's life."
The group purchases panties to go in the pockets of the dresses. Older girls get friendship bracelets made by Joyce Bowden and Kelly Colson, both of Mount Airy. Babies and toddlers of diaper age don't get panties but they do get headbands with their dresses.
"This has almost changed my life because it is so satisfying," Glass said, adding that her husband is involved, too. "He takes me everywhere to pick up donations."
Janice McDonald, of Sykesville, said she was afraid she would not be able to make them, but now she loves sewing the dresses.
"I got the hang of it and now I've been doing quite well," she said.
Roebuck said she encourages her church friends at Friendship Baptist Church in Sykesville to help.
"We have six or eight ladies in the church who sew dresses for us and bring them back," she said, noting that seamstresses are of all ages. "I give them about 10 [dresses] at a time."
Mattoon said the work they are doing is filling a need in developing countries.
"[Missionaries who deliver the dresses] always report how needy the children are and what a special a time it is when they hand out the dresses," Mattoon said. "One Haitian missionary reported that she took dresses to a village that had lost everything out to sea in a hurricane. Huts were hastily built, but the girls could not leave the huts because they had no clothes. Those dresses and panties were so important to that little village."
The group limits donations to 150 per year to each mission that requests dresses. But Mattoon said the need is so great in South Sudan that they sent 200 dresses and 200 pairs of shorts to them in September.
Let's Dress the Girls seeks donations of opaque 100 percent cotton fabric, sheets and pillow cases. They are always looking for volunteers to make dresses.
Mattoon said that since May 2015 they have sent more than 1,000 dresses to girls — from infants to young adults — helping those in need in Central and South America, Haiti, the Tohono O'odham Nation of Native Americans in the United States, and as far away as Africa.