HIlo, Sunday, May 22, 2011 Vicky Brandish’s narrative is harrowing: domestic violence, abuse, severed relationships and abandonment — all resulted in the 47-year-old becoming homeless. However, the sadness of her story is countered by feelings of hope, joy and purpose.

For almost six months, she has lived at the West Hawaii Emergency Housing Facility on Pawai Place in Kona’s Old Industrial Area. She said the facility, run by Hope Services Hawaii, keeps participants “happy and
connected with life by boosting our self-esteem and helping us make a difference in other people’s lives.”

For Brandish, this starts with a pillowcase. She was among the seven participants Saturday who made dresses out of pillowcases, blankets and fabric for girls in impoverished countries during a sew-a-thon, part of the Dress a Girl Around the World project sponsored by St. Michael the Archangel Church.

“For a lot of us here, our hearts go out to these children because we have gone through what they are facing now. It’s scary, downright frightening,” Brandish said. “I got involved to make a change in their lives. If all it takes to save them from being traumatized is making and providing them with simple, clean dresses, I will do whatever I can everyday to make that happen. When that little girl puts on my dress, I hope she feels happy, loved and cared for.”

The dresses provide a level of protection from sex trafficking in Third World countries. Traffickers prey upon children with ragged, dirty or torn clothing. Those that are clean and dressed look like someone is taking care of them and are less likely to disappear, said Sonia Scadden, project leader and member of the church’s Social Justice Ministry.

The goal was to make 100 dresses at the sew-a-thon held at the West Hawaii Emergency Housing Facility. Participants made 14. They also have 36 more dresses cut out and prepared to be sewn, of which will be completed before July, said Paulla DeMello-O’Bannon, homeless program manager for Hope Services Hawaii.

To support this effort, the church, Salvation Army and DeMello-O’Bannon donated three sewing machines to Hope Services Hawaii. Fabric Gift Shoppe and the church also gave materials.

The dresses will be delivered to girls and teens by missionaries and charity workers traveling to various countries, including the University of the Nations’ Youth With A Mission members, Mercy Ships and St. Michael the Archangel Church. Trips to Cambodia, the Philippines and Africa will occur in the coming months, Scadden said.

Prior to Saturday’s sew-a-thon, Betty Burlile, volunteer and so-called den mother at the West Hawaii Emergency Housing Facility, created three pillowcase dresses. Each were hand-delivered about three weeks ago by missionaries in Cambodia. She got “chicken skin” upon seeing a photo of a 7-year-old girl wearing her creation — a striped gown, complete with cross stitched flowers and a turtle.

“It was precious, truly precious,” Burlile said. “I hope these girls get a sense of safety and know that there are people who care about them.”

Burlile has set a personal goal of creating 50 dresses, of which each takes her about 20 minutes to make. She said several of the facility participants have vowed to make 500 dresses by July for the project.

“I’m doing this not just for the girls, but also to change people’s opinions about the homeless. We’re not all alcoholics, drug users or mischievous law breakers,” she said. “I want the public to start seeing us more as people, who care and contribute. Many of us give back to others without expecting to gain anything personally. We enjoy doing these things.”

Last month, the Social Justice Book Club at St. Michael the Archangel Church began reading Somaly Mam’s “Road of Lost Innocence,” a true story of children in Cambodia sold into sex slavery. It was “the most difficult book” Shirley David, the book club’s facilitator, said she ever read because “the girls are looked at as sex objects, not humans at all.”

Many club members delved deeper into the issues of sex slavery and human trafficking. They learned these problems are not isolated in Third World countries, but also happen in Hawaii and on the mainland. There are about 350,000 girls, some as young as 3 years old, who have been brought into the United States and sold into trafficking, Scadden said.

The club’s discussion began to center on one question: What can we do? Scadden found the answer in an article about Hope 4 Women International’s Dress a Girl Around the World campaign. So far, participants in 40 states have formed clubs and made more than 40,000 pillowcase dresses, all of which have been hand-delivered to 34 countries, she said.

The church’s Social Justice Ministry decided to join the effort and make it a year-round project. It is collecting materials, including gently used or new pillowcases, fabric and elastic. People interested in sewing or delivering dresses are also needed, Scadden said.

“One dress makes an enormous difference in one child’s life,” she said. “Not only are these girls getting a certain level of protection, they’re also getting a dose of dignity, confidence and love from afar.”

To get involved or for more information, contact pastoral associate Cynthia Taylor at 960-0734 or cynthiamiller@hawaii.rr.com.

Lucas-Zenk, Carolyn . “Sew-a-thon aims to create hope”Hawaii Tribune Herald, 22 May. 2011. http://www.hawaiitribune-herald.com/sections/news/local-news/sew-thon-aims-create-hope.htmlEmail Carolyn Lucas-Zenk at clucas-zenk@westhawaiitoday.com.