Thursday, December 19, 2013

Trudelle Thomas and Dresses For Girls in Haiti

Trudelle Thomas is an English Professor, an activist and advocate of financial literacy for women. She also has a passion for sewing and a passion for Haiti.

Trudell Thomas
Dresses for Haiti by Trudelle Thomas

Dieula gazes from across the room.  With her bright eyes and shy smile, she looks like a typical eight-year-old.  In truth, she is a house servant who spends her days doing laundry, dishes, and chores.  She is a “restavec”—a Creole term meaning “stay with” that refers to a child owned by a more well-to-do family.  I sponsor Diuela through a group working to end child slavery in Haiti, and know her only from the photo I keep on my sewing table.  Her sweet smile has inspired my neighbor Pam and me to spend many happy hours sewing clothing for girls like Dieula. 
From a news article, Pam and I learned about the struggles faced by children in Haiti. 
 Many children are unable to attend school because they own no clothing but a cast-off T-shirt. Many lost their parents in the 2010 earthquake.  One in 15 works as a restavec.   
Pam and I quickly recognized a way to put our creativity and sewing skills to good use.  We began to make simple sundresses using pillowcases.  Soon we improved the basic pattern and buying fabric:  yellow gingham, pink florals, blue batik, and more.  We haunted fabric stores for good deals and loved the challenge of making a dress pretty and also sturdy enough to hold up to being washed in a rocky creek.  Since many girls own only one dress, we figured our how to make some reversible.  We added ruffles and pockets.  Over the past year we’ve sewn eighty-plus dresses, each one unique.
Making things with our hands is a soulful endeavor that has given us a sense of solidarity with the Haitian people.  We both recall clearly how having a pretty dress in childhood could lighten our hearts. By reading Mountains Beyond Mountains, which tells of Paul Farmer’s inspiring medical work, we’ve gained a sense of the beauty and resilience of the Haiti people through. 
To stay motivated for the long term, we needed some assurance that the clothing was actually reaching people in need, so we linked up with the Restavek Freedom Foundation, based in Cincinnati, where we live.  We were able to visit their headquarters, meet people who work there, and talk about ways to collaborate.  Lauren, our contact person, agreed to keep us updated.  She suggested our dresses needed sturdier shoulder ties, and also gave us the idea of buying panties, hair-ribbons, and lacey socks to accompany the dresses.  (We buy bobby socks and add lace trim.)
Our talk with Lauren also led to the idea of making baby slings for mothers.  In a country with few sidewalks or strollers, slings allow a mother to carry her baby and still have her hands free for shopping and household tasks.  Remembering how much we loved carrying in our own babies in slings, we’ve made 55 baby slings so far.
Sometimes, sitting at my sewing machine, I imagine walking down a road in Haiti.  It smells of sewage and is lined with drab shacks.  Then I turn a corner and up ahead is a group of girls jumping rope.  In their brightly colored dresses they are as pretty as a field of wildflowers.

                                          To learn more, see the Web site for the Restavek Freedom Foundation and read the book Restavec:  From Haitian Slave to Middle Class American by Jean Robert Cadet. This is the book that first brought the problem of child-slavery to world attention. 
We also recommend the wonderful novels by the Haitian writer, Edwidge Danticat, such as Breath, Eyes, Memory and Krik Krak.

Rosemary Williams launched Currency of the Heart to inspire readers to “pay it forward” from the heart’s most precious currency. We’d love to hear from you! To share your story or to request permission to republish this blog post, please email

© 2013 Rosemary Williams

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