Home » Blog » Inspiring Stories » Everyday Greatness: Little Dresses for Africa



Share this story

Everyday Greatness: Little Dresses for Africa

Rachel O’Neill founded a charity which provides homemade dresses and trousers to children in Africa and beyond.

Rachel O'Neill with girls who received dresses from her organization; photo courtesy Rachel O'Neill
GP-Inspiring Stories Tag Content GP-Inspiring Stories Tag Content GP-Inspiring Stories Tag Content GP-Inspiring Stories Tag Content GP-Inspiring Stories Tag Content GP-Inspiring Stories Tag Content GP-Inspiring Stories Tag ContentGP-Inspiring Stories Tag Content

Who She Is

In 2005, Rachel O’Neill, of Rockwood, Michigan, was working full-time as an executive assistant for an engineering firm. While active in her church, she’d never done any global volunteering. But after a safari in Africa for her fiftieth birthday, followed by a mission trip to Malawi, “I felt God calling me to do something more.”

She was struck by the backbreaking labor done by girls to support their families. “I wanted a way to honor them,” she says. Her idea? Persuading a few women at her church to make 1,000 simple dresses from pillowcases, requiring no sewing, to be donated to girls in Malawi.

What She Does

Rachel and her friends met their goal that first year. As word spread, donations poured in. “Dresses started coming every day from all over the country!” Rachel says. In 2008, with zero prior experience, she started a nonprofit called Little Dresses for Africa, with a mission of getting simple homemade dresses to girls (and pants to boys) in impoverished communities.

To date, more than 10 million dresses have been donated to children in 97 countries, including the United States, though Africa remains a focus. Volunteers make 100 percent of the clothing, as well as manage almost all the logistics of shipping clothes from Rockwood and collection points in nine other countries.

Why She Does It

Rachel had hoped the dresses would boost girls’ self-esteem. She soon learned they were helping in ways she could never have imagined. For example, they offer protection from human traffickers and sexual assault. “Attackers assume girls in nice clothing are being watched over,” she says. “And so many children still go without clothes. We’re answering a critical need. We’re not just sending dresses—we’re sending hope.”

How She Does It

The nonprofit runs a distribution center in Malawi and works directly with community leaders there to distribute donated dresses and pants and washable menstrual pads, which have proven key to keeping adolescent girls in school. In other countries, Little Dresses networks with established charities, such as Samaritan’s Purse. Rachel works with 30 to 40 volunteers in Rockwood to sort and box clothing for shipments, sending thousands every week. “When I started, I didn’t know what a shipping container even was, but I’ve learned on the job,” she says.

How You Can Do It

“Nearly half of Malawi’s population is under age 14,” Rachel says. “We are nowhere close to meeting need.” For dress patterns and shipping information, go to littledressesforafrica.org/printables. Rachel emphasizes that opportunities exist for people who sew and those who don’t. “We only ask people to use high-quality, colorful material,” she said. “If you wouldn’t give it to your child or grandchild, we don’t want it for our children.”

She also asks for money to cover shipping costs, estimated at $2 a dress. Generous donations have allowed Little Dresses to address other needs, including building more than 85 wells and two primary schools. “I couldn’t have done any of this on my own,” Rachel says. “But when you step out in faith, God works miracles.”

For more inspiring stories, subscribe to Guideposts magazine.

Share this story

Community Newsletter

Get More Inspiration Delivered to Your Inbox

Scroll to Top