Dresses provide armor against traffickers

Phoebe Langel of Girl Scout Troop 42358, in Middle Township, sews details on a dress that will be donated to a poor girl through Dress a Girl Around the World, a project sponsored by Hope 4 Women International.
Photo above by Mary McWilliams
An adult and child work together on a sewing machine.
Photo by Alan M. Dumoff

Uganda is one of a number of nations throughout the world where children are trafficked and exploited for forced labor and prostitution, according to a 2016 report issued by the United States Department of State. But upward of 56 girls in east Africa may be saved from that risk, all due to the efforts of some volunteers in the Diocese of Camden.

Recently, more than 140 volunteers of all ages from Saint Joseph Parish in Somers Point and Saint Brendan the Navigator Parish in Avalon joined their creativity and sewing skills to make dresses for distribution by Dress a Girl Around the World, a project sponsored by Hope 4 Women International.

The dresses do more than simply clothe the poorest of the poor in poverty stricken countries around the world and areas within the United States. They also provide a type of armor for the girls against human traffickers.

When the traffickers, who prey among the most vulnerable in adverse conditions such as poverty and natural disasters, see a girl in a new, clean dress, they know someone is taking care of her and are more likely to avoid her.

The dresses are hand-delivered to the girls with the message that God loves them and that the people who made the dress especially for them love them too. “Then, we watch the transformation before our eyes as the girls realize their dignity,” according to the organization’s website, dressagirlaroundtheworld.com. Labels with the organization’s name are sewn on the outside of the dress so traffickers can see that the girls are under the care of an organization.

Saint Joseph’s became involved in the project last year when its director or religious education, Laurel Marchesini, learned of it from a member in her Bible study who participated at an event at another church.

Marchesini was considering new ideas for church family activities and decided to try this one. The results were outstanding with more than 100 volunteers producing 250 dresses.

She is a parishioner of Saint Brendan the Navigator which has a Prayers and Squares sewing group. At their invitation, she spoke to them about the project and, according to Terri Cwik, one of the two organizers at the parish, theirs was a follow-up to Saint Joseph’s last year. But both events seem to take on lives of their own. Once again this year, Saint Joseph’s had about 100 volunteers and has surpassed the number of dresses made at the event last year. Many people take home the fabric to stich up and returned the finished dress later. Marchesini would not be surprised if they end up with 300 dresses for the spring shipment.

At Maris Stella, more than 40 volunteers showed up, including members of Girl Scout Troop 42358 of Middle Township, two of whom are confirmation candidates using the day toward their service hours. Cwik was so impressed with the enthusiasm, she thinks this may be an ongoing project for the parish. Marchesini said Saint Joseph’s will probably continue it as an annual family and intergenerational event.

“It’s wonderful to see families get involved,” Marchesini said. “I really try to enourage (everyone) to come as a family.”

She estimates that 25-30 families showed, comprising about 50 percent of the workforce. She saw people of many generations interacting, teaching, and learning. “Some of the adults were teaching the kids to sew. I had seven or eight kids using sewing machines who had never sewn before.”

Dress A Girl Around the World, a Christian non-profit based in Iowa, doesn’t typically guarantee where a dress will go due to the large volume of dresses they receive from throughout the country, but the local liaison, known as an ambassador, came to both Saint Joseph and Stella Maris to pick up dresses for specific girls in Uganda. She came with a list of the girls, their sizes and picked out dresses especially for them. They were hand-delivered to girls last month. She took 40 of the dresses made at Saint Joseph and 16 from Stella Maris. The remaining dresses may go to Haiti and the Dominican Republic in the spring.