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Project’s About More Than Just a Dress


As they made dresses for girls in Africa, Caledonia schools and its community were a perfect example of “it takes a village.”

“I enjoy getting to do something for people you don’t even know — complete strangers are helping you,” said Alexander Smith, an eighth-grader who helped make the dresses.

Students found out new things about their feelings and their futures through the project. One said it soothed her nerves, and another said it made her think about becoming a fashion designer.

Jesse VanSolkema talked about watching his grandmother sew. “She just passed away, and now I have a chance to do this with the supplies she left us,” he said.

Harlei Mansfield and Sasha Grimes show what finished pillowcase dresses look like

The project began in the 2014-2015 school year when the high school Kiwanis Key Club started collecting pillowcases and raising funds for a non-profit organization called Little Dresses for Africa. Making dresses out of pillowcases to send to Africa is one of its major projects.

Duncan Lake and Kraft Meadows middle schools’ Kiwanis Builders Clubs got involved next. More teachers and students came on board, and an eighth-hour class of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students started sewing the dresses using 10 sewing machines purchased with grant money from the Caledonia Education Foundation.

The school district’s Transitions program, which teaches job skills to special need students graduating from high school, raised more than $125 selling Valentine candy grams. That money was used to cover costs of additional sewing supplies and shipping. Supplies and assistance also were donated by the Caledonia Kiwanis Club.

The dresses were finished off with iron-on transfers made from artwork created by the two middle school Builders’ Club groups. The Builder’s and Key clubs — both sponsored by the local Kiwanis Club — are leadership programs which meet throughout the school year.

It all came together without any specific plan, just group after group stepping up to help, which leaders said wasn’t a surprise given the generosity of the Caledonia schools and community.

Science teacher Michelle Krentz taught the class how to sew the dresses. A little obstacle did pop up for her when students in the class gathered for the first time: Many didn’t know how to sew. Krentz taught them how, and 26 dresses were made during the seven-week class which ended in mid-March.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Krentz said. “I thought if they made five dresses it’d be a miracle.”

While the Little Dresses for Africa website says making a pillowcase dress is fairly simple, the students with no sewing experience didn’t always agree with that statement. Keeping a straight stitch was one of the difficult parts for for Jesse a. “Dealing with the pedal,” was, too, he said.

Krentz plans to work with students next fall on more dresses. “I loved watching the kids do this for others,” she said. “Who would think a pillowcase nobody wanted is now going to be a dress for a little girl to help her be able to go to school.”

Besides learning about working together, the students came away with a new skill. “Every student now has a little bit of sewing experience,” Krentz said.

If you would like to donate pillowcases, they can be dropped off at Kraft Meadows Middle School, 9230 Kraft Ave. SE, Caledonia.

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Pillow case Pattern

Caledonia Transition Program

Little Dresses for Africa

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Linda Odette
Linda Odette
Linda Odette is a freelance writer and editor with more than 30 years of experience in journalism. She’s worked primarily as an editor in feature departments at newspapers in West Michigan, including the Grand Rapids Press, the Muskegon Chronicle and the Holland Sentinel. She lives in East Grand Rapids near the Eastown edge, has a teenage son and a daughter in college. Read Linda's full bio or email Linda.

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