Stitching for strangers

Edgartown students make dresses to help keep girls around the world from being kidnapped.

Sarah Vail, left, and Aase Jones worked together to teach Edgartown students how to sew the dresses behind them. — Stacey Rupolo

It doesn’t take much to be charitable. A random act of kindness, a small donation, or a simple article of clothing can go far in shaping a person’s life. Edgartown School teacher Sarah Vail has fully embraced this philosophy and brought it into her classroom. For the past year, Ms. Vail has been teaching people to make dresses for the Dress a Girl Around the World campaign.

Dress a Girl Around the World seeks to save impoverished young girls from being kidnapped and forced into sex slavery by clothing them. The idea is that a child who is clothed and appears to be well cared-for would be missed and is therefore less of an easy target for kidnappers.

In 2011, MVRHS hosted a sewing class to get people making the simple slip dresses for Dress a Girl. Fashioned after a pattern that repurposes a pillowcase, the dresses are called “pillowcase dresses.” Ms. Vail attended that event, and was inspired to continue the mission of making and donating pillowcase dresses. Several years later, she organized her own event, and taught last year’s fifth grade class how to sew and make the dresses.

As a teacher, Ms. Vail sees it as her duty to educate her students about those who are less fortunate than themselves. She wondered what her students’ response would be to making something that they ultimately had to give away. She was pleasantly surprised by the results.

“The kids were great,” she said. “Nobody complained about not getting to keep it, or not getting to make something for themselves.”

The project got underway at the start of the 2016 school year with fabric donations from Julie Robinson and Abby Bailey. It took the students about a month to complete the project. They learned how to thread a machine, cut fabric for a pattern, sew, hem, and make pockets. Once the dresses were assembled, Ms. Vail called on a friend, Aase Jones, to help finish them.

Ms. Jones has been sewing as long as she can remember. When she showed up at the Edgartown School with the kids’ dresses in tow, she was wearing a fabulous purple and green muumuu she made, paired with a purple coat and purple tights. With her flair for color and eye for detail, Ms. Jones explained how she used scrap ribbon from Sweden to embellish the pockets and straps of each dress. Ms. Jones tidied up loose threads and gave the dresses a French hem to make them last longer.

Between these two women, the simple “sack” dress pattern was transformed into a delightful heirloom garment. The way Ms. Vail and Ms. Jones talk about these dresses, you would assume they are making them for a beloved child or grandchild, not for strangers halfway across the world. Their loving attention to this project is apparent in the final products, which are special in that they not only serve a purpose but look beautiful.

Ms. Vail isn’t sure where all of the dresses will ultimately end up. The organization distributes them where need is most desperate, usually hand-delivering them to organizations to ensure their arrival. However, last winter Edgartown teacher Debbie DeBettencourt along with her daughter Erin DeBettencourt, Marit Bezahler, and Lollie Bezahler took a trip to Fond Blanc, Haiti, and delivered a batch of dresses to Next Step Ministries. The rural community two hours from Port-au-Prince supports an orphanage that houses more than 50 children. The dresses were hand-delivered by the group of Islanders. The also brought school supplies from the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury, deodorant, and first aid items.

Some of the students’ dresses were donated to an orphanage in Haiti. — Deborah DeBettencourt

“The thing that stood out about these children was how happy and grateful they were,” Ms. DeBettencourt wrote to The Times in an email. “While we were there, we worked on widening the road in Cazel, another small village on the only road to Fond Blanc. The work we did was just washed away by the river during Hurricane Irma. Now the road is only passable by donkey or motorcycle.”

Erin DeBettencourt is continuing their effort to help the community with a dine-to-donate event at the Loft with Pizza di Napoli on Wednesday, Nov. 15. Ms. Vail will continue to make dresses with her students and in her spare time.


For more information about Dress a Girl Around the World, visit