CHATFIELD, Minn. — When Denise Smalley thought about little girls in poor countries having to wear tattered old clothes, it practically broke her heart.

"In some of these places they don't get something nice to wear," she said. "And everything they wear is washed in a river on rocks."

In 2014, Smalley and her husband Charles moved to Chatfield, Minn., from the small town of Hampshire, Ill., an old friend from her church there kept in touch and talked to her about an organization, Dress a Girl Around the World, where people volunteer to sew dresses for girls who need something new and nice to wear.

"I put it off for a while, but eventually found free time," Smalley said. "Eventually, it fell into my heart and broke my heart to think they get old, ratty clothing."

In August 2019, Smalley began sewing a few dresses and reached out to people in her new church, St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church in Chatfield, to lend a helping hand. Within a few months, she had a small group of about "eight to 10" women sewing dresses. They started meeting in the church basement, bringing their sewing machines and assembling the dresses that would eventually get sent to Smalley's friend in Illinois, who then forwarded them on to Dress A Girl to be sent overseas.

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Several dresses are ready to be packed and shipped for distribution through Dress a Girl Around the World, an international program designed to give girls dignity through the donation of new dresses. Denise Smalley of Chatfield helps organize a group of ladies who sew dresses for the organization. (Contributed photo/Denise Smalley)
Several dresses are ready to be packed and shipped for distribution through Dress a Girl Around the World, an international program designed to give girls dignity through the donation of new dresses. Denise Smalley of Chatfield helps organize a group of ladies who sew dresses for the organization. (Contributed photo/Denise Smalley)

Smalley said the group had gotten into a groove when it came to making dresses. Smalley would cut the pieces and organize them along with all the buttons or elastic needed for each dress. Then when the group met, everyone would take a kit and start sewing until the kits were gone.

By December 2019, the group had made a couple of hundred dresses, and with the holidays coming, they decided to take a month off before resuming their work in the new year.

COVID and Norma

Unfortunately, COVID-19 hampered the group's ability to get together in 2020, and several of the seamstresses dropped out of the project due to changes in their life due to the virus.

But one positive from COVID-19 came when the local Chatfield newspaper wrote a story about Smalley and her group.

Norma Koch, a Chatfield resident, decided to volunteer her time.

"It said, 'If you were interested in sewing from home,' and I thought, that is the ticket for me," Koch said.

Koch has become Smalley's star seamstress, completing 319 dresses in roughly one year of sewing.

While Smalley said the dresses take about an hour to complete, Koch, who lives in a senior independent living apartment in Chatfield, said a dress might take her two hours to complete, but she keeps at it nearly every day.

"It depends if I stay to it," Koch said. "If I get tired, I do something else, then come back to it later."

Koch said she's not a fan of puzzles or other activities that are common among the other residents of the apartment building, and with COVID-19 enforcing some social distancing, she thought the sewing project would help occupy her time.

"I started sewing when I had kids," she said. "So, when I saw this, I just thought I could do it."

Keeping going sewing

Along with Koch and Pat Karver, the third member of the current group, Smalley has continued the system that worked when the group met at the church.

Smalley buys or otherwise acquires the fabric from donations. Then she cuts the fabric based on the sizes for a simple dress requested by the organization. That dress is a sleeveless, 100% cotton dress ranging from girls sizes 5 to 14, and with two 7-inch pockets.

Dress kits in bags await someone to sew them. Denise Smalley of Chatfield leads a group of ladies who sew dresses for Dress a Girl Around the World, an organization that donated dresses to give girls dignity. (Contributed photo/Denise Smalley)
Dress kits in bags await someone to sew them. Denise Smalley of Chatfield leads a group of ladies who sew dresses for Dress a Girl Around the World, an organization that donated dresses to give girls dignity. (Contributed photo/Denise Smalley)

Early on, Smalley realized that if she and her group were going to sew a lot of dresses it might cost a lot of money. She talked to her pastor, the Rev. Peter Haugen, and arranged for the church to get an account with Thrivent Bank, which offers a $250 donation via a credit card for nonprofit work done by its clients.

"That goes really far if you find sales," Smalley said. Which is what she did. She watched for sales at fabric stores to stretch her dollars. "Fabric is the big thing. We got the Thrivent card, and people have donated checks from church."

One member of her group watched out for garage sales, and — husband in tow — Smalley found deals for fabric and paid out-of-pocket $2-a-yard instead of the normal $8-a-yard.

What it all means

"Each dress that I make, I can see the smile on those little girls' faces that say, ‘I have a dress,'" Koch said. "I think it’s such a wonderful thing to do."

Haugen said giving a girl some self-esteem with a pretty new dress is just one benefit. The other is that girls who wear something that looks like it was given with love are lesser targets for human traffickers in poor, Third World countries.

According to the Dress a Girl website, each dress should come with a "Dress A Girl Around the World" label prominently displayed. A note on the website says, "We've been told by village pastors that giving a girl a new dress raises her dignity as well as how she is viewed by others. That indicates to predators that this girl is under the care of an organization."

The organization also reaches out to women and girls to make them aware of signs that a person might not have good intentions for them.

"If we educate them and their parents/guardians, they are less likely to be deceived," the organization states.

Smalley said her group has made nearly 600 dresses that have found their way to places in Africa, Central and South America, Asia and Europe, according to the website. Dress A Girl has even sent dresses to victims of natural disasters in the United States.

More assistance needed

Koch said you don't need to be an expert at sewing to help. While she learned to sew years ago, and has kept up the practice a bit, she was glad to see the dresses were fairly simple to do. And, if people are stuck indoors and isolated, it's a great way to use your time.

Smalley said she's running out of fabric, and her Thrivent card is now out of cash. Anyone who would like to donate fabric or money — or volunteer to sew dresses — should contact her via email at csds81@gmail.com.

It doesn't take much to see the good you're doing if you help, she said.

"You can just imagine a young girl twirling and knowing how pretty she looks," Smalley said.

Human trafficking by the numbers

According to Dress a Girl Around the World, a program of Hope 4 Women International, human trafficking impacts millions of individuals annually, most young women. Here are some numbers.

2: Where human trafficking ranks as far as the world's largest criminal enterprises. (Drug smuggling/arms dealing is No. 1.)

30: How many seconds pass before another child is trafficked.

80: The percentage of trafficked people that involves sexual exploitation.

19: The percentage of trafficked people that involves labor exploitation.

12, 13, 14: The ages at which most young women are trafficked.

1.200 million: Children brought into the slave trade each year worldwide.