Cheryl White has put smiles on the faces of more than 50 children that she will never see.
The children live as far away as Africa or as close as Appalachia. White gives them a gift they might otherwise not receive -
a new outfit.
(Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec) Cheryl White of Williamsburg measures and cuts fabric that will become a dress for Little Dresses for Africa
A resident of Williamsburg, White has been keeping her sewing machine humming the last eight months as she creates dresses for African girls who are raising their siblings because their parents have died of AIDS. In addition to dresses, she makes shorts for boys and some of the outfits may go to children in earthquake-torn Haiti or boys and girls in the United States living in poverty.
Having learned the art of sewing from her grandmother, White never seems to be without a needle and thread in her hands. She retired as a nurse from Altoona Regional Health System about 2 years ago and is devoting more time to her craft. In addition to personal projects, she helps to make mission quilts at her church, Zion Lutheran of Williamsburg.
It was her 96-year-old mother who alerted her about sewing for the children after seeing information about the Little Dresses for Africa project in the Morrisons Cove Herald.
White went to the Internet where she learned more about the project and how to participate.
White said Rachel O'Neill of Brownstown, Mich., is founder of Little Dresses for Africa, a nonprofit 501c3 Christian organization. The organization has distributed 560,000 dresses in 31 African countries and has been featured on the "NBC Nightly News" with Brian Williams.
Although the dresses can be made from pillowcases, White followed the link to Nancy's Notions, a supporter of the project, that provides patterns.
According to the Little Dresses for Africa's website, the project began after a group of women took a short term missions trip to Malawi and saw tattered dresses on the children.
The project took off and now O'Neill receives outfits from volunteers in all 50 states.
Although most of the volunteers who take part in the effort are part of a group, White works by herself.
"I have made over 50 dresses and at least 10 pairs of shorts." she said."I like to sew. These dresses don't take too long to do."
But she does have help when it comes to acquiring the materials.
She gets fabric, thread and buttons from her former co-workers at ARHS's Case Management Department where she continues to work as a casual employee and the staff at Partnering for Health Services, the free medical clinic at ARHS, where White volunteers.
"I told the women with Partnering for Health that they needed a project," White said, "but none of them sew."
White spends evenings pinning patterns and cutting the fabric.
"I am not a TV person," she said. "I can't just sit and watch TV, I have to have something to do."
For her, the work is a labor of love.
"These little girls are forgotten," she said. "They have suffered through the AIDS pandemic, war or natural disaster. They have nothing."
It is the mission of the nonprofit organization to encourage the children through the gifts. The website says the "dresses are distributed to plant in the hearts of little girls that they are worthy."
Once the outfits are complete, they are distributed by missionaries or church volunteers going on missions trips to assure delivery to the children in Africa and elsewhere. Some of the clothes go to children on reservations for Native Americans in South Dakota or low income communities in Appalachia.
White hopes to branch out on her own and help children in Pennsylvania by serving children in inner-city Philadelphia through a Christian worker who helps them and perhaps find a contact in Pittsburgh.
Most of the dresses are made out of colorful, flowery fabric, but White would like more plaids and dark colors for the shorts. She said it takes about a yard of fabric for each outfit.
When she is not busy making dresses or volunteering at Partnering for Health Services, White helps the women in her church make blankets for people in Third World countries. It is a project of Worldwide Relief of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
The Rev. Tiffany Marvich, pastor at Zion, is supportive of both projects. Marvich prayed for the Little Dresses for Africa project and blessed the outfits that were displayed in the sanctuary one Sunday.
"She is a very devoted person," Marvich said of White."She is a very caring person who goes out of her way to reach out and help others with the gift God has given her to make and sew things."
White's compassion and care come through on the finishing touch to her work. She sews a decorative prairie flower with a button center in the middle on each dress.
"It's a sign of love and hope," White said.