Children huddled around with growing anticipation, each child squirmed to be in front, hoping to get their first pick of the various traditional Indian clothing laid out in front of them, made from silk, cotton and chiffon accompanied with intricate embroidery, embellishments and beadwork.
One girl, with a grin plastered across her face, quickly chose a dress, requesting to try it on as it was her favorite color.
“It was just so great to see clothes that I had once worn go to a greater cause and to someone else who was actually able to wear them and feel good wearing those beautiful clothes. And they could also use it to celebrate,” said Avani Bansal, the CEO and founder of Dream Dresses.
As Bansal, 16, continued to recall her first visit to India since creating her nonprofit at 14 years old, she noted it was then she knew she was making an impact by shipping traditional Indian wear to kids in India who did not have proper attire to celebrate festivals, such as Diwali or Holi.
Two years later, Bansal has implemented volunteers and donation centers in Bothell, Bellevue and Sammamish, as well as in eight other states.
The inception of Dream Dresses
In 2021, Bansal packed her clothes into boxes, preparing to move to a new home in Redmond with her family. As she emptied the closet, she noticed the collection of new and barely used traditional Indian clothes she had outgrown.
“I asked my mom if we could donate them to Goodwill, especially if they were completely brand new,” Bansal said.
When Bansal and her mother went to Goodwill, they would not accept the clothes, stating children in the United States would not use them.
Bansal reached out to her friends, wondering if they shared a similar experience donating their hardly worn and outgrown traditional clothes — the consensus was “yes.”
This shared experience was the catalyst for the creation of Dream Dresses.
“There are so many clothes that we have, that have barely been worn, because the festival season only comes once or twice a year,” Bansal said. “And you know, like in this age, kids are always getting taller.”
Then and now
At the start, Bansal admitted, getting traction around Dream Dresses presented a challenge. However, Bansal went beyond creating a website for the nonprofit; she, along with a few volunteers, experimented with diverse marketing strategies, engaged with various Facebook groups and WhatsApp communities and relied on traditional word-of-mouth approaches.
These efforts soon paid off when people from other states with similar experiences began to reach out.
“They were saying that they also wanted to join this cause and volunteer, which is how we eventually expanded to up to nine states in the U.S. today,” she said.
In the first year, Dream Dresses grew from one volunteer — Bansal — to six. Currently, the nonprofit has over 30 volunteers, ranging from 10 to 18 years old.
Through consistent communication and collaboration, Bansal added she was surprised by the number of friends she made across the country — people she had never met became some of her closest friends.
“It’s not just a team of people working to get these clothes to India, but it’s also a community of like-minded individuals.”
As volunteers and donation centers grew across the country, so did the donations.
Dream Dresses, which began with over 100 pieces of traditional Indian clothing, has now collected over 10,000 pieces and shipped 7,500 of them to seven states in India, according to the website.
“We have two more shipments going out in December. So that should be about 9,000 by the end of the year,” Bansal said.
Operations began to shift alongside the growth of the nonprofit.
What used to be a simple delivery of donations to Bansal’s grandmother in Mumbai, India — who would sanitize and deliver the clothes to a local foundation — became an insurmountable challenge for a small group of volunteers and a grandmother to sanitize and distribute over 10,000 pieces of clothing.
Dream Dresses now works with three organizations, Catalysts for Social Action, Aarna Foundation and Goonj, who collect the shipped clothes and give them to children who need traditional Indian clothing.
As the volume of clothing received and shipped grew exponentially, Bansal said shipping expenses began to exceed $500 per shipment.
“I think over the years, we have been able to learn a lot about ways to fundraise for things like that,” Bansal said. “We’ve been able to host fundraisers and collab with different restaurants to host a fundraiser.”
The newest initiative to mitigate shipping costs is a program called Carry a Bag, created by a volunteer.
This program allows people in the U.S. who would already be traveling to India to carry on or check in a bag with Dream Dresses donations inside.
“We’ll cover the costs for checking in that extra bag, and our nonprofit partners in India will pick up the clothes from the person that’s volunteering,” Bansal said.
As the nonprofit continues to grow, Bansal said one of her goals is to spread the nonprofit initiatives across India and possibly to other countries with cultures that include specific attire.
Ways to volunteer and donate:
The Dream Dresses team makes donating simple. Bansal said people can reach out through the email provided on the website contact page, and the state and city lead will help schedule a drop-off or pick-up time.
Bansal said there are other ways to support the nonprofit besides donating clothes or volunteering.
“You can simply donate to the GoFundMe — every single dollar helps so much to help us actually get these clothes to kids in India so they can celebrate with their dream dresses.”
Bansal said Dream Dresses offers various volunteer options. People can become long-term volunteers, short-term volunteers, interns or create their own donation center or donation drive with the help of the Dream Dresses team.
Arushi Sinha, a 17-year-old long-term volunteer in Bellevue, has worked on Dream Dresses fundraising and news media team since the summer. Sinha said when she was looking for volunteering opportunities to fill her graduation requirements, she was fascinated by the number of initiatives and the impact Dream Dresses had on the Indian communities — in the U.S. and in India.
“It was rewarding to feel like what I was doing was truly making a difference,” she said. “It’s completely surreal to imagine how one action can truly create a long-standing impact for everyone involved.”