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Kirkland women’s group sews dresses for children in impoverished countries | Photos

A little girl stands with her mother as she models a pillow case dress made by one of the women at the Peter Kirk Community Senior Center. The family was staying at the  “Kwashiorkor ward,” or malnutrition ward, at Hospital Albert Schweitzer in Deschapelles, Haiti.  Allison McLean traveled to Haiti to hand-deliver the dresses after she heard about the philanthropic endeavor.  - ALLISON MCLEAN, Special to the Reporter
A little girl stands with her mother as she models a pillow case dress made by one of the women at the Peter Kirk Community Senior Center. The family was staying at the “Kwashiorkor ward,” or malnutrition ward, at Hospital Albert Schweitzer in Deschapelles, Haiti. Allison McLean traveled to Haiti to hand-deliver the dresses after she heard about the philanthropic endeavor.
— image credit: ALLISON MCLEAN, Special to the Reporter

One afternoon each month, a group of women meet at the Peter Kirk Community Center. It’s not for the exercise classes or a game of Bridge.

It’s for thousands of children who don’t have proper clothes in some of the poorest countries around the world.

And these women work to make a difference one dress and pair of shorts at a time.

During the last two years, their clothing has traveled to Malawi, Rwanda, Haiti and Kenya twice each.

In March 2012, Margaret Wagner with the Senior Center at Peter Kirk, was watching the “Making a Difference” segment on NBC News, which showcased a woman with cancer who made pillow case dresses with her friends.

“I thought, ‘Wow,’” Wagner said. “I always watch these segments and think, ‘What can an individual do who’s not going to journey somewhere?’ Sometimes it’s amazing what you can do with the resources you have.”

Wagner asked women at the Senior Center if they would be interested in sewing and donating the pillow dresses featured on the show.

About five women started with the group and even more donated materials such as seam binding, buttons, thread and pillow cases.

“When we first started, we didn’t have anything,” Wagner said. “We had three sewing machines donated, an iron, ironing board… This woman said she found a $100 bill on the street and she went out and bought, at the thrift store, two sewing machines.”

Soon, by word of mouth, the group had grown and the pillow case dresses were on their way to Malawi, an “extremely poor” country in Africa.

The clothes were sent with a woman who belongs to a local Catholic church. She was visiting a sister church in Africa.

It was important for Wagner and the women to send their creations with people who could physically hand them to the children.

“We discovered that the big established foundations were not interested in anything like this,” Wagner said. “They just wanted money.”

Sending them by mail also posed a risk, as some governments were corrupt and could not be trusted.

“We wanted to give the dresses personally to someone who was going,” said Jeanne Thompson, a sewer in the group. “We wanted to know, to get some feedback with what was actually happening.”

After Malawi, a doctor from the Seattle Children’s Hospital delivered a batch of dresses to Kenya. And then the mother of woman who’s employed by the State Department in Rwanda delivered another.

Without knowing where or when they’ll get another opportunity to send their clothes, the women continued to make dresses and shorts in their spare time while meeting once a month.

Last November, a special delivery of 50 dresses and shorts was made by Allison McLean to a Haitian hospital malnutrition ward.

McLean had learned of the group in much of the same way other travelers have: word of mouth. McLean’s sister-in-law’s mother attends the Senior Center exercise class and had seen the dresses sprawled out on one of the facility’s tables.

“I was really excited when I saw the dresses,” McLean said, who is a professional photographer from Bellevue. “I didn’t realize how creative and individual and just really cute these things could be. Things that kids in a country like Haiti would be happy to have instead of just some shapeless sack or something.

“It’s much more than that. There’s a lot of love and care put into it.”

When McLean and her husband delivered the clothes to the hospital, she remembers the mothers and children were told there were some dresses and shorts Americans would like to donate.

“They came up and they were looking at them,” she said. “They [were] hesitant, they’re very polite people.”

McLean picked up a pair of shorts that matched a little boy’s red shirt and handed them to him.

“He just lit up,” McLean said. “It was pretty neat.”

McLean said the “Kwashiorkor ward,” which is the term for malnutrition, put the majority of the clothes in reserve to make sure they were reserved for the poorest children.

“Everyone thinks of Haiti as everyone being super poor, but there’s degrees of poverty,” she said. “Sometimes kids come through there who live in the mountains and their parents had to carry them down. They really have nothing at all.”

The most recent trip was in January, when a young man involved in Earth Corps agreed to take the clothes to Haiti where his mother runs an orphanage for boys and girls.

“It was through this place, a woman who takes the exercise program, she has a good friend who houses Earth Corps volunteers through all different countries,” Wagner said.

But almost as important is the friendship the women in the group have developed.

“People who probably wouldn’t have spent too much time with each other, they have out of this synergism of making the dresses,” she said. “We’ve developed relationships. To me, that’s as magical, really, as what happens at the other end.”

Wagner said it’s that bond that makes it hard when their members pass on. One woman, Virginia, 90, isn’t likely to make it, she says, but was responsible for nearly 35 percent of the dresses.

“Her mother was a tailor and she was a single mother,” Wagner said. “She made her living by tailoring and so Virginia learned and makes all of her own clothes. She jumped into this with a lot of gusto and she’s made the most darling, precious dresses.”

Wagner said their goal is to continue their project for some time but need more members and material to do so. She said anyone can join -- men, women, young, old, experienced and non-experienced. And they’ll gladly accept any fabric, thread, buttons or monetary donations for the seam binding, which is the most expensive part of their project.

At this time, the women are sewing clothes for children in Kenya that will go with a man who will help build a church in the country. He has delivered the clothes to Kenya in the past as well.

Wagner said the next group meeting is at 2 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 20.

For more information, contact Wagner at 425-587-3360 or email her at mwagner@kirklandwa.gov.


All photos taken by Allison McLean

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