Mesa volunteers sew clothing for orphans worldwide
September 19, 2018
By Aliyah Chavez
Every Wednesday at Apache Wells Community Church, Darlene Carpenter and a group of Mesa women cut, sew and press handmade dresses and shirts for children living in orphanages worldwide.
Carpenter founded the nonprofit Dresses for Orphans in 2009 as a hobby with a small wish to give a few children a new piece of clothing.
“Initially, I was just going to do this in my house,” Carpenter said. “I thought I could do about 20 or 30 dresses in a month, and then someone invited me to speak to a women’s group here in this church. I did that and invited anyone to join me at my house. Five people came, and that was the beginning.”
Carpenter has always enjoyed sewing and helping children. She was inspired to blend those hobbies. After creating the dress’ prototype, she reached out to a couple who worked with orphanages in India. They quickly expressed interest in the clothing, and weeks later, Carpenter sent her first batch of 100 shirts and dresses overseas.
Since then, Dresses for Orphans has provided more than 41,000 free dresses and shirts to 114 orphanages in over 32 countries. On any given week in the summer, Carpenter can expect about 35 volunteers and, in the winter, up to 55.
The volunteers, self-described as “very committed,” hail from various backgrounds, churches and communities throughout the Valley. Like Carpenter, they too expressed their excitement in helping children.
“It is so meaningful,” said Jerri Ramey, a volunteer of seven years. “It is a wonderful feeling to make these outfits for the boys and girls in these less fortunate areas. I look forward to each week to be able to donate my time to create smiles on these little boys’ and girls’ faces when these outfits arrive.”
The group’s success is due in large part to Carpenter’s work.
“She’s wonderful and very understanding in how she helps each of us,” said Gloria Bruce, a nine-year volunteer. “When I first came here, there were just a few people, and now look.”
In fact, Carpenter’s work has inspired others to start small groups in Ohio and Minnesota.
“I was one of the original volunteers,” said Molly Voita. “I’ve unretired, and now I’m starting a group in southwest Minnesota. Darlene ships us 100 T-shirts, and we do the whole thing in Renville, Minnesota. Then I ship them back here.”
The boys’ shirts come in various colors ranging from gray to maroon and feature three appliqued hearts.
The girls’ dresses are equally colorful and feature three hearts with prints ranging from stripes to flowers to floral designs. All of the clothing includes a small tag that declares, “Hearts ‘n’ hugs for kids… Jesus loves me!”
The clothing is made from bulk-purchased shirts, while many of the applique designs are donated by quilters with extra pieces of fabric.
The organization relies largely on monetary donations and spends part of its time fundraising through garage sales, craft fairs and book sales.
Additionally, it is also not unheard of for these women to help hearts closer to the Phoenix area. Since the group’s founding, it has sewn T-shirts for kids with leukemia at the Phoenix Children’s Hospital, pillowcases for women and children at the Changing Lives Center and goodie bags for homeless people.
“Every now and then different projects come up throughout the year. We like to help, but of course, this is our main project,” Ramey said. “I love it here. It’s such a good mission and we have such a wonderful time together.”
Many of the women echoed similar sentiments of feeling socially fulfilled by sewing dresses for orphans.
“It’s such a blessing to come because you’re giving and you’re getting. Working with these women is also rewarding because several of them say, ‘Coming in on Wednesday is the highlight of my week,’” Carpenter shared.
“As long as my health is with me, I will be here,” Ramey said.
Dresses for Orphans welcome donations ranging from scraps of cotton fabric to money to an extra pair of hands.
“There is room for everybody to make a difference,” Carpenter said. “If anybody out there has any interest at all there’s a place for everybody.”