There are 120 dresses hanging in the main hall of St. Paul Catholic Elementary School in Norwood and pretty soon there will be 160—one for every girl in the school.
They used to be plain cotton T-shirts and fabric. Now they are vibrant and colourful. They have pockets and lace, polka dots and stripes, flowers and plaid.
Lined up together, hanging on a clothesline, the dresses make a powerful statement. They were sewn by the Grade 5, 6, 7, and 8 students, many of whom had never used a sewing machine before. The material for the dresses was fundraised for and donated by the school community.
The dresses will soon be shipped across the world and given to girls in impoverished countries where not owning a dress can mean not going to school.
Michele Keating is the Special Education Resource Teacher at St. Paul Norwood and an avid seamstress who runs the school’s knitting and sewing clubs.
Supporting the charity Dress a Girl Around the World, Keating had planned to make a handful of T-shirt dresses with a handful of interested students. Interest spread, and soon enough, every Grade 5, 6, 7, and 8 student wanted to take part.
The school held a fundraiser to purchase supplies. The community responded, dropping off material and volunteering to sew. Keating set the goal to make 160 dresses to represent the school’s 160 girls.
“The response from the students has been amazing," Keating says. "Every student who has made a dress has been so proud of themselves. The teachers are happy with it too, not only because it’s a great social justice cause, but we cover a lot of math curriculum, a lot of formulas for figuring out area and a lot of real-life application of measurement."
“It has really brought our whole school community together," she adds. "There was no way on earth we could have done this if I didn’t have volunteers from our community and people dropping off material. There was a whole box of lace that was randomly dropped off in my room one day. It started out being some small thing and it spread through our school and through our community.”
School principal Rob Citro takes some sewing instruction from Michele Keating.
Today, Keating has some special helpers to contribute in the homestretch of the project. Director of education Michael Nasello, school superintendent Timothy Moloney and school principal Rob Citro are making their own dresses under the supervision of experienced Grade 8s.
“I learned that you don’t have to do much to make a big difference in someone else’s life,” says Grade 8 student Eliza Buchanan, who was helping Moloney navigate the sewing machine. “You’re making something and it’s such a little thing for you, but it’s going to be something so big for the girl who gets this dress. It’s really inspiring.”
Grade 8 student Eliza Buchanan
“I think it will make us feel really good seeing all the dresses lined up in the hall because you’re doing something for other people, not ourselves, people who are less fortunate,” says Grade 8 student John Hughes, who co-created a dress with Nasello.
Director of education Michael Nasello shakes hands with sewing partner Grade 8 John Hughes
While working with the students, Nasello said one word came to mind: dignity.
“There is something really special about clothing," he says. "Clothing is not only providing a necessity of life, but it gives a person dignity. To reach out and support young people the same age or younger and to bestow some sense of dignity and support in their lives, I think is the most important type of outreach. I’m so amazed that there is an initiative like this and that it’s really involving students and adults working together to do something good for young people around the world.”