Author, Lakesha Cole, 2014 Armed Forces Insurance Military Spouse of the Year
Photos courtesy of Hope For Women International
Imagine a world where every little girl owned at least one dress – where bright colors and fanciful prints draped the imagination of little girls and allowed them to dream of a world where they felt loved, safe and protected. That’s what military spouse volunteers in Okinawa, Japan are doing to help empower and boost the self-esteem of young girls in impoverished areas.
Everyday, Keena Alston, Air Force veteran and spouse and mother of 14-year-old Kiana, makes dresses for a special little girl she will never meet. Keena, along with a volunteer group of military spouses and kids in Okinawa, Japan are changing lives one little dress at a time by converting pillowcases into dresses for the Dress a Girl Around the World organization.
Dress a Girl Around the World is an organization under Hope 4 Women International, which offers young girls in the U.S. and various countries the opportunity to own at least one dress. The organization utilizes volunteers who come together regularly to sew in their homes, churches and clubs. The dresses are then collected by volunteers, community representatives, and church missionaries who deliver them to girls in poverty-stricken areas. To date, Dress a Girl Around the World has delivered more than 280,000 dresses to girls in over 80 countries.
Keena learned to sew in 1999 by a fellow comrade who had a creative thumb and sewed all of her own clothes. “Sewing is a great creative outlet. I love that I can take an ordinary piece of fabric and turn it into something that little girls love to wear and feel pretty,” said Keena.
Keena started the Dress a Girl Around the World campaign over two years ago while stationed at Seymour Johnson Air Force base. She learned of the campaign while surfing the Internet for ways to use her sewing skills to make items for newborns in need. After her recent PCS move to Okinawa earlier this year, Keena decided to continue to share her love of humanity and start the first Japan chapter of Dress a Girl Around the World. “What I love about this campaign is that there are no requirements. Whatever you can give, you give,” said Keena.
Keena gathers pillowcases from local thrift shops and receives donations from family and friends. Then she follows the simple instructions and patterns provided by the organization that are easily illustrated for any novice seamstress. The patterns uses the pillowcase opening as the dress hem, and the only sewing required is along the neckline and armholes. The only extra materials required are elastic and ribbon, which Keena is able to provide through donations. Each dress is marked with an official Dress a Girl label on the outside, which serves as a defense mechanism for the girls. According to the organization, the label shows that the girls are protected and cared for and keeps the predators away.
“The idea that I am able to use my handcrafting skills to make a difference in the lives of less fortunate children makes this campaign even more rewarding,” said Keena.
Keena’s efforts have helped more than 100 girls in developing countries. “It really pulls on my heart strings when I see pictures of the girls in a dress I made,” she said. “I saw a picture of a group of girls in Uganda and I recognized the ones I made immediately. It brought tears to my eyes.” Keena is now preparing to send another stash of dresses to be distributed by a local missionary group headed to the Philippines.
But her work is far from being done. She’s just getting started.
Sewing isn’t just a hobby for Keena. After serving 20 years in the Air Force, she has also turned her hobby into a home-based business. Keena created The Patriotic Princess, a specialty dress boutique for girls with a patriotic flare. “I am inspired by different types of fabrics and often times like the print to speak for itself, said Keena.
“My business is another way for me to share my talent and create memories, a way to support other small businesses and give back, it’s a means of income, and it’s a way for me to meet new people and make new friends. This truly is my passion and I just love creating fun.”
If you’re stationed overseas and interested in donating, starting a sewing group or hosting a Dress A Girl event, email Keena at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.facebook.com/dressagirlaroundtheworldjapan.
Hope 4 Women International is a 501c3 charitable organization that helps to improve the lives of impoverished women and children around the world by teaching them skills that empower them, boost their self worth, and help them support themselves and their families.