500 dresses: Tiny church fills shoeboxes through sewing skills

500 dresses: Tiny church fills shoeboxes through sewing skills

November 11th, 2013 by Clint Cooper in Life Entertainment

Seven-year-old Tristan Long holds up one of the dresses he made. "(Tristan's) very motivated to help individuals," says Tom Long, pastor of the church and Tristan's father. "It is something he liked to do."

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

Members of Catlett Community Church made 500 dresses that will be given to women and girls in several countries.

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

Members of Catlett Community Church made 500 dresses that will be given to women and girls in several countries.

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

Evelyn Jackson says she couldn't have found a better way to contribute.

When tiny Catlett Community Church in North Georgia decided to make a passel of dresses this summer, it turned to the retired sewing plant employee.

"When they asked me to make the dresses, I said, 'That's right up my alley,'" recalls Jackson, 77, who had worked for Ely & Walker shirtmakers in LaFayette, Ga., for 25 years.

She wound up making about 350 of the more than 500 dresses that went into shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child, a division of Samaritan's Purse from Boone, N.C. The shoeboxes are distributed annually to children in more than 130 countries; the ones with the dresses will, naturally, be going to girls.

Catlett Community Church, which is loosely affiliated with the North American Church of God, was the No. 1 supplier for the program in the Northwest Georgia area last year with 861 shoeboxes. Catlett is on track to be tops this year with 1,064 boxes so far, says Rebecca Losh, a church member and the media coordinator for Operation Christmas Child in the area that covers from LaFayette to Dalton, Ga.

The kicker is that the church has 30 people.

Three. Zero.

For perspective, the entire Northwest Georgia area supplied 17,026 boxes last year, according to Losh. Catlett's 861 boxes accounted for 5.1 percent of the total.

"A lot of other churches do it," says Tom Long, Catlett's pastor, "but it's more than the numbers. It's more about the heart of the people. [That's] what shines."

The program started out small, he says, but has become one of the church's major focuses. Instead of working on it for a couple of months leading up to the mid-November shipping date, the congregation collects items throughout the year. Long's office even becomes a repository as the year goes on for items such as soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, pencils, pens, markers, books and stuffed animals that are put in all boxes.

"It's a blessing," he says. "I'd give (the office) up anytime."

The congregation has been packing boxes for Operation Christmas Child for five years, Losh says. One year, members heard from a children's home in the African nation of Uganda, which had received some of its boxes.

"The director of the home was telling us about some of the children," she says, and that was all it took. Now, the children [in the congregation] start asking as soon as they go out, 'When are we going to do the boxes again? When are we going to do the boxes again?'"

This year, though, members were inspired by an email from the South American country of Guyana about their 2012 boxes. In it, the letter mentioned in passing that another church had included dresses in its shoeboxes. That sent Catlett Church fingers flying and sewing machines humming, according to Losh.

Cotton fabric was supplied by a number of sources, including a mother lode that church member Lori Jackson inherited from her late sister, Lynn Campbell, a longtime quilter. The dresses -- made in equal amounts for ages 2-4, 5-9 and 10-14, the categories into which Operation Christmas Child recipients are grouped -- were completed in three months.

The outfits were made in pillowcase style, which allows for the dresses to be worn by the range of ages stipulated by the program, Losh says. The only difference in the lot, she says, is that one woman added elastic to the neckline.

Five of the church members made all the dresses, some of which were crafted from actual pillowcases.

Among the tailors was 7-year-old Tristan Long, son of the church's pastor and nephew of Lori Jackson. Jackson taught him how to quilt and crochet and worked with him to make some of the dresses instead of the quilt he originally planned to make over the summer.

"He put his quilt on hold," says Jackson, 47, who has sewn "my whole life" and made about 100 of the dresses herself.

Tom Long says his son was anxious to work on the dresses even when his aunt wasn't available.

"[Tristan's] very motivated to help individuals," he says. "It something he liked to do."

Operation Christmas Child is a simple way to teach people about the love represented in the life of Jesus at Christmas, says Jackson.

"Our kids enjoy it," she says. "They can share our love. That's what our church is really made of."

Over the next few days, the shoeboxes will be delivered to First Baptist Church in LaFayette, one of several North Georgia drop-off locations. They'll be picked up with others there, trucked to Atlanta, then on to their destination.

When a little girl opens a shoebox in some distant land, seamstress-once-again Evelyn Jackson says she'll feel "thrilled."

"I'd love to see their little face," she says.

Contact Clint Cooper at ccooper@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6497. Subscribe to his posts online at Facebook.com/ClintCooperCTFP.