Cape Elizabeth United Methodist Church Parishioners Beverly Merrill, left, and Barbara Knowles make dresses for Dress a Girl Around the World last year. The church is inviting members of the community to participate this year. Contributed

CAPE ELIZABETH — Being given a new dress may seem like a simple thing, but that gesture can bring comfort and safety to a little girl living in extreme poverty.

For the sixth year, Cape Elizabeth United Church is participating in Dress a Girl Around the World, a program that provides dresses for girls in need around the globe. The group also provides education on basic health and hygiene.

A girl in the Togolese Republic in West Africa holds up a new dress from Dress a Girl Around the World. Courtesy / Dress A Girl

Dress A Girl Around the World is part of Hope 4 Women International, a non-denominational Christian organization founded in 2006 by Rachel Eggum Cinader of Iowa.

Thousands of volunteers sew dresses using straightforward, basic patterns. According to information on the Dress A Girl website, more than 1 million dresses have been delivered to girls in 81 countries.

“We can distribute 250,000-300,000 around the world in one year,” said Cinader in an email. “A new dress can give a girl great confidence! I’ve met girls with torn dresses. They try to hold the dress together so you don’t see the holes. Slip a beautiful new dress over their head, covering the tattered dress and watch her face light up!”

Although some garments are distributed in the United States, the majority are shipped abroad to countries that include Uganda, Zimbabwe, Ecuador and Vietnam.

“The dresses are very simple, but they mean so much to the little girls,” said Judith Hill of Scarborough, a parishioner who coordinates the local effort.

A new dress can restore a sense of worth to a vulnerable girl in extreme poverty who may be abused, held as a slave or seen as an outcast, according to a brochure distributed by Dress A Girl Around the World.

Hill said there’s been a core group of around a half dozen parishioners involved in the yearly effort. Last year about a dozen volunteers made 295 dresses, many of which were sent to Zimbabwe.

This year, the church is inviting community members to join the project. The group will meet at the church at 280 Ocean House Road on four consecutive Saturday mornings from 9 a.m. to noon beginning Feb. 1. Volunteers do not need to commit to all four sessions. A tutorial for new participants will be held from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday, Jan. 25 at the church.

“We have some really great members who work not only on Saturdays but during the week,” Hill said. She has already geared up for this year’s effort and started sewing. “As a matter of fact, I have about 33 dresses in my closet just to get started.”

The dresses must be made of cotton, which is more durable than other fabrics, Hill said. They can’t be see-through or have raw edges. The garments include pockets, where a new pair of underwear is often tucked away.

Dressmakers are also asked to put a “Dress A Girl” label on the outside of the dress.

Parishioner Linda Webster, who lives in Portland, has also volunteered with the Dress A Girl project since its inception in Cape Elizabeth. She said this time of year it’s nice to have an indoor project, and it’s fun to see all the vibrant fabrics in the cold and sometimes dreary months of January and February.

“It’s a wonderful winter activity,” she said.

Webster said when she thinks of the girls the dresses go to, she also thinks of her daughters and granddaughters and how she would never want them to be in a situation where they had to fear for their safety and didn’t have adequate clothing.

The dresses are easy to make, though volunteers must have some sewing experience.

“You have to be able to sew a straight line,” Hill said, adding all dresses are inspected to make sure they are of good quality and can withstand wear and tear.

After the dresses are distributed, the church is given pictures of some the recipients, said Hill.

“We see these pictures of little girls with big smiles on their faces wearing our dresses,” Hill said. “It’s so rewarding.”

Those who wish to participate need to bring a sewing machine. Other materials will be available at the church. Those interested should email Hill at [email protected] or call the Cape Elizabeth United Church at 799-8396.

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