Little Dresses for Africa from big hearts

Feb. 03, 2014 @ 12:17 PM

With step-by-step instructions, anything is possible, including making dresses out of pillowcases.

So far 49 dresses have been made by Jennifer Marquis’ students at Phillips Middle School for the nonprofit organization Little Dresses for Africa. The pilot class of a larger program, the family and consumer sciences students have set the bar high.

“It’s a challenging and fun, step-by-step instruction project,” Marquis said. “I piloted it then we’re all going to do it in the spring again.”

Part of the professional learning community with Cheryl Cureton of Culbreth Middle and Debra Freeman of McDougle Middle, the three talked about doing a larger project that all of the district’s middle schools could participate in.

“We’re working to align the middle schools so we try to don one big project each year,” she said.

This year’s project was Little Dresses for Africa. In the hallway outside Marquis’ classroom hangs a clothesline filled with multi-colored and multi-patterned dresses.

All similar in size, the dresses used to be pillowcases. Now they are adorned with bows, pockets and ribbons by the skilled hands of seventh- and eighth-grade students.

Seventh-grader Caroline Conerly has made two dresses. Knowing how to sew when she came to the class, she initially thought the project was too difficult for those just beginning to sew but is happy that they took on the challenge.

“I think it’s great,” Conerly said of the project. “It’s a great cause and a great thing to do. I think it’s different from what we normally do in school.”

Several of Conerly’s classmates appeared to have their minds on one thing, as they focused on threading sewing machines, measuring material and pinning ribbon and hems.

Jenny Nelson has made three dresses so far. The eighth-grader said that this is her first time doing something like this and it’s made her feel good about her newly acquired skill.

“I feel like I’m really doing something to help them,” Nelson said of the African girls who will get the dresses. “I learned to sew here. Ms. Marquis broke it into really easy steps.”

Marquis admitted she spent her winter break with a friend who can sew to help her break down the project for those just beginning to sew.

“I practiced, practiced and practiced and we took the instructions and broke them down and made them middle school friendly,” she said.

A pleasant surprise stepped into Marquis’ class one day to borrow a cup of sugar. Benjamin Davis, a teaching assistant in the autism class, saw the dresses and suggested a way that he could help.

“I saw these dresses and said, ‘Wow, these are amazing dresses,’” he said. “Ms. Marquis said that she had a plan to have them shipped when I saw this as a great service project.”

Having returned from a trip to Africa in October with World Overcomers Christian Church, Davis said that he is going back in August, “and I told her I would take them.”

“I see this having a benefit for the students here and there,” Davis said. “The kids (in Africa) have no idea about it. I’m really excited about it.”

The dresses will be taken to girls between 5 and 14 years old at Sulmac Primary School in Lari in the Kiambu region of Kenya. Davis hopes that this will give the African children an alternative view of America and inspire the Chapel Hill students to be even more global.

Thanks to technology, the students were able to see and speak to some students in Africa they will be helping.

“Hopefully it’ll encourage them to want to travel and see the world and possibly go back,” he said. “I’m glad we were able to put this together. This is not just something they (Phillips students) do. This is going to change lives.”

Teaching assistant Jeanine Lynch said that she “was surprised that they were beginning sewers and picked it up so easily.

“They did it with little fanfare,” she continued. “I think for them to see who they’re helping and for them to be so enthusiastic encourages everyone.”

Marquis is hoping that the students will be able to send 200 dresses to Sulmac Primary School this fall.