Women sew dresses for Haiti

At the Cabrini Center in Richland July 20, Isabelle Leppert sews a dress for a girl in Haiti.

By Celine Klosterman

From humble beginnings as pillowcases, dozens of cotton creations have found new life as dresses for girls in Haiti — thanks to 10 seamstresses in the Diocese of Davenport.

The members of parishes in Richland, Davenport and Bettendorf are volunteering to sew dresses to send to an orphanage in Haiti, which was devastated by a January 2010 earthquake. More than a year later, the country’s 4 million children still lack water, sanitation, health care, education and protection from exploitation, according to UNICEF.

In an effort to help fill at least one need of the children — clean clothing — Mary Jo Gruneich recruited fellow seamstresses to a July 20 dressmaking workshop at the Cabrini Center in Richland. Volunteers cut, pressed and sewed enough fabric to make 25 dresses that day, and the Catholics took home materials to make 15 more pieces of clothing from pillowcases.


“It’s rewarding to be with other women who I know and care about while we’re doing a fun, creative activity for a good cause,” Gruneich said. She belongs to St. John Vianney Parish in Bettendorf and grew up as a member of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Parish in Richland.

She began the charitable effort while spending a winter in Gold Canyon, Ariz., where her sewing group made dresses for a member to take on annual mission trips to Haiti.

Sewing the dresses made Gruneich’s aunt Isabelle Leppert, who also traveled to Gold Canyon, reflect on the inequalities between Haitians and U.S. residents. “It’s unreal what they don’t have and what we have,” Leppert said.

Early this year UNICEF reported that more than one million Haitians — including 380,000 children — were displaced because of the January earthquake and living in crowded camps. In May and June heavy rains led to a spike in cases of cholera, a disease that broke out in Haiti in fall 2010, Catholic News Service reported in June. More than 5,000 people have died of cholera since the outbreak began, according to CNS.

“I felt that especially since they’ve had natural disasters, the people of Haiti really need help,” Janet Fritz said. She joined fellow members of Ss. Joseph & Cabrini Parish in Richland for the July 20 dressmaking workshop, which members of St. Paul the Apostle and St. Mary parishes in Davenport also took part in.

A longtime seamstress, Fritz said the dresses cost virtually nothing to produce, since they use only pillowcases and scraps of fabric that most sewers already have. “I can just picture some of the little girls wearing these dresses.”

“We put bows on them, make them stylish,” Leppert said. Volunteers can construct the clothes in one of three sizes in less than an hour. Parishioners will continue making them until spring 2012, when a Gold Canyon resident will deliver the dresses to an orphanage in Haiti, Gruneich said.

“This is a very rewarding program,” Leppert said.

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