One Stitch at a Time
Jane Paulson of Santa Barbara, California decided to use her talents to bless others. In ten years, she and a few friends have made and donated nearly 4,000 dresses to charities, including LDS Humanitarian Services.
Stepping into a spacious and tastefully decorated home on a tree-covered hillside in Santa Barbara, California, I expected to see . . . well . . . a small dress factory. After all, Jane Paulson and her friends have made and distributed nearly 4,000 dresses in recent years.
Instead I found a cozy corner of the house with a couple of sewing machines, a nice view of a beautifully landscaped courtyard, and a few well-organized baskets of material.
Sister Paulson seemed a little surprised by my interest in her project. In her mind, she was just doing what little she could to help others in need. What she didn’t realize, however, was that her efforts could inspire countless others to give humanitarian aid without ever leaving home.
“I feel very good about my projects,” said Jane. “Doing them has made a difference in my life, and it brings me a lot of peace. Some people spend a lot of time trying to ‘find’ themselves when it could be so much better to spend that time helping others. If everyone did something, even though it might be small it would bring us all closer to Christ. I wish I could do more.”
Jane admitted, however, that small things do become big. “When I look back over the years, what I’m doing is not a small thing anymore,” she said.
Jane’s small project began in Gig Harbor, Washington, 10 years ago. “A ward member visited Relief Society one Sunday and shared an experience he’d had during a visit to the LDS Humanitarian Center in Salt Lake City,” said Jane. “He said they told him they don’t have enough little dresses. Girls in the United States don’t wear dresses much, so their families donate shorts and pants. He got emotional when he said that.”
Jane said, “The smallest deed is better than the grandest intention.” When she first started out, she had a chart drawn of 100 little girls (her original goal) and colored a dress each time one was completed.
“I thought, ‘I like to sew; I have three little girls and make their dresses, and I would enjoy sewing a few dresses for the Humanitarian Center.’ I got a pattern for a simple dress from a local store, but following it was quite a chore,” noted Jane. “Then my sister-in- law told me about little T-shirt dresses that are faster to make. I thought, ‘That’s it!’ I suggested to the Relief Society activity leader that we should make ten dresses. She said, ‘Let’s make a hundred.’ That’s how it started.”
Jane loves to shop, so she looks for little T-shirts and then finds fabric to go with them. “I’m a bit artistic, and it was fun to put these little dresses together,” she said. “I have six to eight women come together and sew. I worked out a system where I do the more intricate work and have others help with the hemming. My sister does the gathering stitches, and she is 92!”
The average cost for Jane’s dresses is $5 for the T-shirt and $3 for the fabric. After the first several hundred dresses, her husband’s company started paying for the material. Many dresses are donated to LDS Humanitarian Services, but others find their way to local charities. Some of Jane’s friends have taken dresses to clinics in Haiti, families in Afghanistan and Guatemala, and orphanages in Mexico.
Jane also spends time helping others catch the vision. “I’ve spent several evenings with Relief Societies helping them learn how to make dresses better,” she said. “I want to make really nice, quality dresses that won’t fall apart when mothers take them down to the river and wash them on rocks.”
When I asked Jane what she would suggest for others who’d like to do something for local or global charities, she gave sage advice. “It’s such a personal thing,” she said. “Everyone has different talents. I knew I could do dresses. The timing is also important; there’s a ‘season’ some people can more easily contribute. You have to be passionate about what you want to accomplish. It’s hard to get others involved until they’re ready.
“Don’t be overwhelmed by trying to do too much,” said Jane. “The smallest deed is better than the grandest intention. Few of us can do big things, but many of us can do small things. Start small and see where it takes you. Even today, my goal is to work day by day and continue making the dresses as long as children need them.”