BRISTOL - Holley Hall was all a-clatter last Saturday as 50 women and one man worked at sewing machines to turn donated T-shirts and fabric into simple dresses for orphans half a world away. The Vermont chapter of Mothers Without Borders sponsored the 12-hour sew-a-thon, during which 1003 dresses were stitched, hemmed and gathered for children in Zambia. The worldwide orphans-aid organization is building a Children's Village in the southeast African nation, where hundreds of thousands of families have been ravaged by the AIDS epidemic.
Mothers Without Borders, based in Utah, ships several thousand dresses to Zambia each year, said Nancy Luke, the group's Vermont coordinator. "But there's a need for tens of thousands," she added. "There's that many kids on the streets in rags and with no food."
Boys also wear the donated dresses. "They don't have anything else," Luke said, noting that Mothers Without Borders plans to start sending shorts to Zambia next year.
The seamstresses and another 30 volunteers tending to piles of multicolored cloth ranged widely in age. Several high school students sat sewing alongside women in their sixties and seventies.
"Helping little kids in Africa is a really big deal for me," said Sadie Messenger, a 16-year-old junior at Vergennes Union High School. "I know if I were in their boots, I couldn't do it by myself."
Sewing skills varied considerably as well. While some volunteers struggled to complete two or three dresses in a couple of hours, Christine McGovern of Bristol, who used to make clothing for a living, assembled a dozen. "This is pretty easy to do," she declared. "It's like making curtains."
Justin Bouvier, 25, shuttled rectangles of fabric through his machine quickly and surely. "My great-grandmother taught me to sew when I was 8," he explained. "She said her grandkids weren't going to be taken care of by women."
Bouvier didn't feel odd being the only male making dresses in the 125-year-old meeting hall. "I take the title to mean 'mothering without borders,'" he suggested. "Guys can be mothering, too."
The national group does welcome participation by men, said Mike Headlee, an organizer of the Children's Village project. Headlee, whose sister Kathy established Mothers Without Borders 10 years ago, spoke at a meeting in Bristol the night before the sew-fest. He said he'd left his job as an investment advisor in Upstate New York because "there comes a time in everybody's life when 'more and bigger' just isn't important."
The Children's Village will be built on a farm near Zambia's capital city, Lusaka. About 250 orphans will eventually be housed there in family-style living units, Headlee explained. The compound will include a school, health clinic and vocational center.
Most of the children have lost one or both parents to AIDS. About 16 percent of adults in Zambia are HIV-positive, and life expectancy in the country now stands at 40 years.
Luke, who launched the Vermont chapter of Mothers Without Borders last Mother's Day, said she wanted to get involved in service work on a global level after years of volunteering on local projects. About 12 Vermonters are regularly active in the group, she said.
But the turnout at Holley Hall showed that scores more are willing to work on projects such as the Zambia Children's Village. "This is pretty inspiring," McGovern said as she surveyed the crowded community hall. "Things like this don't happen every week in Bristol."