5:00 P.M. EST Jan. 7, 2011 | FRANKLIN, Tenn. (UMNS)
Every little girl loves a pretty new dress, especially if she has never, ever owned one.
And members of the Hillsboro United Methodist Church in Franklin, Tenn., are doing their best to make sure more than a handful of girls in Haiti receive a coveted dress.
So far, they have sewn 110 “pillowcase dresses,” crafted from brightly patterned pillowcases and other colorful fabric.
Inspiring them were the stories that members Bronwen and Bill Pope brought back from their mission trips to the Caribbean country ravaged by an earthquake a year ago.
The Popes’ first visit to Haiti was a short-term mission trip to an orphanage in 2002. That’s where the couple met their future son, Kenson, now 8. His adopted brother, Caeden, 7, whose biological mother and sister still live in Haiti, joined the Pope family a year later. The Popes are also the parents of two daughters, Hannah and Noa, now 13 and 10.
Wanting also to help the people of Haiti, Hillsboro Church member and tailor Cherry Lane Darken started the pillowcase-dress project, and congregants and community volunteers quickly stepped in to make the dresses. People began donating whimsically designed pillowcases, sheets and other fabric, as well as ribbon and thread.
Betty Hughes was one of the first to get involved. She loves the idea of providing new, one-of-a-kind dresses to girls accustomed to faded, worn garments and hand-me-downs.
“To have something new has to be exciting,” she says. “That’s why we’ve chosen … not to make all (the dresses) alike. What a joy that’s going to be for that child. When they put that dress on, they’re going to feel even more special.”
Elementary student Lauren Jorgensen modeled a pillowcase dress. She saw pictures of some of the little girls Bronwen Pope had met. One girl stood out to Lauren, who told Pope she wanted the dress to belong to that little girl.
Lauren wanted the child to know someone made the dress just for her.
“Somebody’s caring about you and loving you and remembering you and praying for you,” Pope says. “I think that’s important.”
Relatively new members of the Hillsboro congregation, which averages 65 worshippers each week, the Popes feel embraced by their church family. “This congregation has heard my heart and is excited about Haiti,” Bronwen Pope says. “It feels good that people are listening and excited about the things I’m passionate about.”
Her fellow member Hughes agrees. “We’re an active little church,” she says. “We’ve all been blessed with more than we need, and when you’ve been blessed, you should want to share. It probably does you as much good as it does for the person for whom you are doing it.”
On Pope’s most recent trip to Haiti, she met a physician who was living in a tent. She learned that when the earthquake hit, the man grabbed his son and shoved him under a table to protect him. The house collapsed on the man's arm and crushed it. Now he cannot work.
“Life in Haiti,” she says, “has always been hard and challenging.” With the earthquake, even more Haitians have joined the ranks of the poor and homeless.
However, Pope sees signs of hope.
“The heart of the people of Haiti has not changed. I’m blessed every time I’m there just to see the people giving to one another and to see their generosity and their joy, to see kids playing,” she says.
“You know they’re hungry. You know they’re thirsty. You know they’re living in a tent. But they’re still playing. They’re still having joy.”
During their travels, the Popes also became acquainted with Ann, who thinks she is about 70. Left without family, hands too crippled to earn money by doing laundry, she had no backup plan when the earthquake struck. Her tent was a blue tarp. “I’m alive because of the kindness of my neighbors,” she told the visitors.
The Popes shared the woman’s story with their congregation, which rallied to raise $2,500 to repair Ann’s severely damaged home.
“The small projects,” Bronwen Pope says, “are going to change the grassroots, one person, one family, one house at a time.”
Reflecting on the pillowcase-dress ministry, she adds, “I think that’s important because something new is very unusual, especially now in Haiti where the basics — food, water and shelter — are what most people are thinking about.”
Member Carol Johnston hopes the dresses can boost the girls’ self-esteem.
“We’re not saving a child by making dresses, but we are doing a little bit,” she says. “And I think every little bit helps.”
Bronwen Pope doesn’t want people to forget Haiti.
“A lot of people, when I say we’ve adopted from Haiti, think we’ve adopted from Africa,” she says. “They have no idea that Haiti is ... an hour plane ride from Florida. Keeping an eye on Haiti, I think, historically we haven’t done a good job of that. They’re our neighbors.”
Being in mission in Haiti has been an incredible experience, she adds. A stay-at-home mom, she will graduate from nursing school this spring. A long-term goal is to become a midwife in Haiti.
“Once you go,” she says, “you’re never the same. It changes your heart.”
*Dunlap-Berg is internal content editor for United Methodist Communications.
News media contact: Barbara Dunlap-Berg, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5489 or email@example.com.