Dozens of little dresses, lovingly created from scraps of fabric and miles of lace, are enroute to an orphanage in Haiti.  South Burlington resident Jan Hughes is at the heart of an ongoing project to provide impoverished children with something they can call their own.

Little Dresses: Miles of Lace and a Message of Hope

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Friday November 06, 2015

A seven-year-old girl grabs a white dress dotted with red hearts and sunflowers from a collection of others hanging in her bedroom closet. She calls out to her mother: “Mom, I’m wearing my favorite dress for the first day of school tomorrow.” Though this is an imagined scenario, it’s also a fortunate reality for many American girls – having an array of dresses from which to choose. For girls surviving in squalid areas of the world, however, the notion of having even one dress is a distant dream.

But here, in your neighborhood, lives a tenderhearted woman who sews not only dresses and skirts for girls, but shorts for boys in Haiti and Africa. This especially kind woman is South Burlington resident Jan Hughes.

As she walked into the South Burlington library a couple of weeks ago to meet with me, she cradled in her arms a bag of clothing flush with blues, pinks, yellows, and greens – a fruit basket of color. I spent an hour with Jan, listening to her share with me her inspirational story – the story of what lured her to help an uncountable number of underserved children.

With a background in Family and Consumer Science, Jan is a seasoned knitter and sewer. She enjoys using her hands in creative ways. She has knitted preemie hats for The Ronald McDonald House and scarves for Special Olympics and for Spectrum Youth and Family Services. For many years, she made hats, mittens, and scarves for the Mitten Tree Project, a venture started in 2011 by a woman from Maine whose goal is to keep kids warm during the winter. As a comfort measure for children, Jan also knitted dolls for dentists who traveled to Haiti to provide dental care to youth. Some of those dolls were donated to orphanages in Africa and Haiti. And she spent a week with members of her church in Moss Point, Mississippi as part of a rebuilding effort after Hurricane Katrina. Jan recalled coming away from that trip “clearer about a more committed volunteer effort” through work like knitting or sewing dresses and shorts “that would be of direct benefit to others.”

Jan added that knitting and sewing also keeps her “engaged with other people.” A librarian at Burlington High School since 1992, she has plenty of opportunity to interact with others. But her interaction goes even further. “It takes a village,” she said, to clothe children in poor countries like Haiti.

A member of Delta Kappa Gamma Society’s (DKG) Alpha Chapter, an organization that promotes the professional growth of women educators, Jan attended the 2012 DKG International Convention in New York City, where Tennessee members presented their outcomes of making Little Dresses For Africa (LDFA). Founded in 2008, LDFA is a non-profit whose mission is to provide relief to children throughout Africa, and beyond. Volunteers from the United States, and other countries, come together to sew dresses from pillowcases and other materials. Traveling to underserved areas allows volunteers the opportunity to hold bible classes, and teaching sessions about nutrition, clean water, and sanitation.

As Alpha Chapter President in 2012, Jan reported the outcomes of the conference to members in Vermont. Inspired by the gratification the Tennessee members shared when telling of their experience making the dresses, Alpha Chapter set a statewide goal of sewing seventy-five dresses, in celebration of the organization’s seventy-fifth anniversary. They more than doubled their goal. In the spring of 2014, they sent one hundred sixty seven dresses to Haiti, and an additional fifty-eight in the spring of 2015. This past August, Jan, and seven other members of DKG, worked an entire day stitching thirteen dresses. As she said, it was “sew-a-thon.”
In the aftermath of such success, Jan continued sewing, though not without the help of the village. As a member of The First United Methodist Church in Burlington, she recruited other women from the church to sew, run hems, and thread elastic through each garment.

Jan’s family is part of the village too. Her face blossomed pink with pride when she told me how her eleven-year-old granddaughter recently spent hours sewing dresses with her. Jan delicately fingered a triangular button of a blue-and-white checkered dress spread out before her, recalling how her seven-year-old granddaughter eagerly picked out the buttons. “It’s fun to see younger generations working on the dresses. It’s a dividend.”
Her generosity has earned her all kinds of emotionally gratifying dividends. Friends, neighbors, and members of both DKG and her church have donated fabric and yarn to Jan. “I have miles of lace,” she said, stretching her arms out wide. “It’s satisfying to see what comes out of someone’s scrap bag.” An immeasurable length of fabric recently came out of the scrap bag of one student from Burlington High School (BHS). Coincidentally, along with members of her church in Colchester, the BHS student will be traveling this month to Haiti to work in an orphanage, where she’ll hand deliver to an uncountable number of children, boxes bulging with dresses, skirts, and boxer shorts sewn by a tightly threaded community. Typically, Jan sends clothing through Little Dresses for Africa, but with the kind offering of the student, Jan is confident the items will arrive in Haiti much sooner, and more directly.

Jan is not free of worry, though. As she ran her hand along a pink-and-white dress with a scalloped hem, she asked, “What if there’s one child who doesn’t get a dress?” She doesn’t know exactly how many children live in the orphanage – eighty, maybe one hundred fifty. So Jan keeps sewing. Some evenings she convinces herself, “I can get one more dress in before I go to sleep.”

When I asked Jan how many pieces of clothing she’s made so far, she said, “I don’t keep count. Dozens. It’s an obsession.” That’s not such a bad obsession for her to have – her devotion to clothing impoverished children, and to be rewarded with joy in knowing that each little girl and boy will have, as Jan said, “something they can call their own.” 

SOURCE: Melissa Cronin, Contributor