Florida stitchers help children worldwide

By Tania Spencer, Special Contributor…

It’s hard to imagine that a simple pillowcase or T-shirt could impact children around the world, but thanks to sewing ministries at Florida United Methodist churches, it does.

In March, the Florida Conference posted a story about East Naples UMC’s “Dress a Girl Around the World” ministry on the conference Facebook page. The church hosted a four-hour sewing party that brought together everyone from teenagers and “golden agers” to winter visitors and volunteers, to make dresses out of pillowcases for the Christian organization Hope 4 Kids International.

The party yielded 30 dresses for the organization, which distributes them to impoverished girls around the world. Volunteers there planned to complete another 120 dresses for the cause.

East Naples United Methodist Church in the Florida Conference hosted a sewing party in March for their “Dress a Girl Around the World” ministry. PHOTO COURTESY EAST NAPLES UMC

East Naples United Methodist Church in the Florida Conference hosted a sewing party in March for their “Dress a Girl Around the World” ministry. PHOTO COURTESY EAST NAPLES UMC

Several other churches responded to the post with stories of their own.

At First UMC, Baldwin, the Tuesday Toilers are making their mark on the world by sewing dresses for girls, shorts for boys and backpacks out of child-friendly fabric. They started two years ago, making dresses for girls in Africa, and more recently took their latest designs to their sister church in San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba.

“They were so grateful for everything, especially the backpacks,” said Jane Sheppard, 71.

“There are so many homeless children there, and they don’t have a bedside table or a dresser drawer to put their personal things in. The backpacks give them something that is their own, and what is in them is their own. They can have their own personal space.”

The sewing group is made up of about six regular women from First UMC and other local churches that just get together for the love of sewing and serving.

“We don’t set a goal of how many things we are going to make,” Ms. Sheppard said. “Wherever the need arises we will donate our things.”

And that includes needs closer to home. Ms. Sheppard said the Toilers plan to send some dresses and shorts to a local homeless shelter. This past Christmas, they donated their colorful backpacks to a class of children with autism in the area. A grandmother in the class filled each backpack with toys and crayons.

“Some of our ladies don’t even sew, but they iron or cut or just make lunch,” Ms. Sheppard explained.

“It’s something that we can do at our age that’s hopeful. It makes me feel useful.”

Nancy Vallario from First UMC, Williston, is part of a small but dedicated sewing group at her church that makes dresses out of pillowcases and boys’ shorts out of gently used T-shirts.

“We originally started this last September, Labor Day,” said Ms. Vallario, 78. “A team from our church took a mission trip to Nicaragua, and we gave them 50 dresses and 50 pants for the local children.”

Since then, the group has made and sent 50 more dresses to Zambia and East Angola with a local missionary, and an additional 82 dresses as part of the Samaritan’s Purse Operation Christmas Child program.

“Some of us can’t go on mission trips because we are too old, so this is a way that we can help, with these gifts,” Ms. Vallario said.

“It’s more fun than anything I have ever done before. And it’s an inexpensive way to give hope and happiness to kids who don’t have much.”

Pastor Will Clark, who pitched in and stitched a dress himself, has a different perspective.

“It was hard. But Nancy mentored me through it,” said the Rev. Clark, who plans on making more.

“This is an important ministry. I’ve been on foreign missions and know that clothes are a real need,” he said. “Plus it’s important that we support the ministry of people in the church.”

The women plan to send more dresses and shorts with their church missions’ team to Nicaragua this September.

They consider it an easy task when they have had such a generous outpouring of donations, both fabric and financial, from their church community.

“When we first started, we put on a fashion show with the little children from our church modeling our clothes and we raised $5,000,” Ms. Vallario said.

What started as a project to honor the memory of a dear friend two years ago turned into an international operation at Arlington UMC, Jacksonville.

Eleanor Kelly, 85, was asked to make and donate some dresses in memory of her friend, Pat Haney, who also loved to sew. She wasn’t sure where to get the fabric from, so she put a notice in the church bulletin and was surprised by the outpouring that came in.

“Everyday material showed up at church, including the tape and thread. It was coming out the woodwork,” Ms. Kelly said. “It was just mind-boggling.”

With the material donated, her team of seven was able to make 94 garments (dresses or pairs of shorts) for children in the Dominican Republic and another 90 that were sent to an orphanage in Haiti. The ministry has continued but shifted to making blankets for children that are distributed wherever the team sees a need.

Volunteers in the Jumpers for Joy sewing team at Harris Chapel UMC, Fort Lauderdale, bless kids in the surrounding community with new school uniforms.

“There are a number of families here who can’t afford to purchase these clothes for their children,” said the Rev. Juana Jordan, the church’s pastor.

“These women are answering the prayers of these parents and truly being the hands and feet of Jesus.”

Ms. Spencer is a freelance writer in Sunrise, Fla. Reprinted with permission from the Florida Conference Connection (floridaconferenceconnection.info).

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

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