Downriver Woman Makes National News With 'Little Dresses'
A movement that has reached hundreds of Africans began with one woman and the Trenton Church of Christ.
Rachel O’Neill had no idea that taking a vacation to Africa to celebrate her 50th birthday would eventually land her on NBC’s Nightly News with Brian Williams.
Five years ago O’Neill, 56, of Brownstown, and her husband Michael planned an expensive holiday in Africa filled with safaris and swanky hotels.
O’Neil said her vacation was fun and exciting, but the real reward came on her second trip to Africa.
After teaming up with a mission group from her church, the Trenton Church of Christ, she went back to the place she said she had “always felt drawn to” and began serving the people of Malawi.
In the Malawian tradition, women are responsible for a great deal of the day-to-day work, according to O’Neill, and right away she said she felt a connection with the women of Malawi.
“You could just look in their eyes, and they knew they had a rough road ahead,” O’Neill said.
After her second trip to Africa, O’Neill said she wanted to do something for the women of Malawi, so she decided to make dresses that she could pass out during her next visit.
O’Neill and four other church members set out one night in November of 2006 to make 1,000 dresses. Four hours and only four dresses later, O’Neill said she overestimated her sewing skills.
“I can’t sew,” O’Neill said.
Practically overnight, and by word-of-mouth, the dresses started pouring in from people all over Downriver.
Soon O’Neill had met her goal of 1,000 dresses--including a few extra.
“The thousand turned into tens of thousands just like that,” O’Neill said.
When people started responding to the effort of making dresses for girls in Africa, O’Neill created a website called Little Dresses for Africa to help raise awareness of her cause. Before she knew it, she had dresses coming in from total strangers.
The website immediately began getting scores of hits. Within the span of less than one year, O’Neill had boxes arriving at her doorstep from all over the United States.
Once NBC News Producer Anthony Galloway got wind of O’Neil’s stunning success, he contacted her the night before she left to go back to Africa in September 2010.
O’Neill’s story aired on Dec. 20 during a segment called Making a Difference: Little dresses bring hope and friendship to Malawi.
O’Neill said she was excited to get national attention because her efforts are focused on remote parts of Africa with which some people might not be familiar.
O'Neill was also featured as Huffington Post's Greatest Person of the Day. Each day the national news website features one person in America doing something remarkable.
“It’s easier to give to Kenya or someplace else, but we go to some of the most remote areas,” O’Neill said.
Now O’Neill receives packages from people in the U.S., United Kingdom, Canada and Mexico. She said she often comes home to up to 30 boxes waiting for her on her porch.
O’Neill says each dress is handmade from people all over the world.
“We receive dresses from community groups, local clubs, little widows in their basements, people with disabilities who may not be physically capable of leaving the house…sometimes they’re my biggest workers,” O’Neill said.
So far, O’Neill cannot afford to hire anyone to help her with her cause. She maintains her effort herself and with a wealth of volunteers. She said even the website was donated to her by a friend.
O’Neill takes vacation days from her job as a communications coordinator at AVL Engineering in Plymouth, MI, in order to make time to visit Malawi. She said her bosses at AVL Engineering support her effort and allow her time off to maintain the cause.
Some of O’Neill’s best volunteers are her family members. Her two grown children, son Michael and daughter Casey, grandchildren and her husband volunteer a great deal of their time to support O’Neill.
“My husband Michael is incredible,” O’Neill said. “Those too serve who stand and wait.”
She said Michael could be seen dropping off packages at the Flat Rock Post Office on any given day.
Now a member of the Metro South Church in Taylor, O’Neill has a new troop of volunteers ready and willing to go on missions to Africa to pass out dresses.
Metro South, once located in Trenton, was recently granted approval by the City of Taylor to open a church in an empty commercial space.
O’Neill said she is currently looking for a storefront to handle the day-to-day operations of Little Dresses. She currently uses donated warehouse space at Material Processing in Wyandotte.
“People are just so generous, in this area especially, and all over the country,” O’Neill said. “I just can’t believe it. … I literally would be overwhelmed if it weren’t for the volunteers.”
Recently, O’Neill opened a school in Malawi and named it after her mother—The Nan Ray School of Learning. More than 450 students attend the school daily.
Schools all over Downriver, including Trenton Public Schools, donated all of the items used at the school.
O’Neill and others carried rocks on their heads and in their hands so they could be crushed and made into bricks to use for building the school.
O’Neill said she is always accepting donations in infinite forms, but funds to help pay for shipping charges are especially welcomed.
Anyone interested in donating their time, money or anything else to Little Dresses for Africa, can find out more information at the website www.littledressesforafrica.org.
“That’s the point of the dresses,” O’Neill said. “They feel the love when someone is giving them a gift, and some of these girls had never received a gift in their lives.”