Saturday | April 25, 2015
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Island Angel: Kona woman spearheading effort to donate dresses to discourage sex trafficking in third-world countries

Scissors snip. Sewing machines hum. Betty Burlile keeps smiling.

The Kailua-Kona resident can’t help it. Inside her donated Hale Kaloko apartment are volunteers helping add to the hundreds of dresses and skirts made from pillowcases, blankets and fabric for girls in impoverished countries. These garments are part of the Dress A Girl Around The World Project and provide a level of protection from sex trafficking in Third World countries. The sight is more than she ever imagined.

“I never dreamed this,” she said. “But I realize now, if you can imagine it, you can create it and things can become better than you ever thought possible.”

It’s been a year since the project, sponsored by St. Michael the Archangel Church, debuted, and Burlile, then a newbie sewer who created her first dress at a sew-a-thon, is now a project organizer.

To date, more than 2,490 dresses have been made and hand-delivered by missionaries, charity workers and community groups to children in places such as India, Haiti, Ethiopia, Peru, Guatemala, Uganda, Ghana and the Philippines. Of those dresses, Burlile created 1,686.

The project has “caught on like wildfire,” with Burlile and St. Michael the Archangel Church members getting requests from groups islandwide and elsewhere wanting to learn how to make the dresses. They obliged. According to Burlile, instrumental participants and donors have been Sonia Scadden, Paulla DeMello-O’Bannon, Sue Costa and Cindy Madden.

Still there’s more work to be done, as the need for more dresses is constant, according to reports from those traveling to and working in such places where children being sold into sex slavery is commonplace. Traffickers prey upon children with ragged, dirty or torn clothing. Those who are clean and dressed look like someone is taking care of them and are less likely to disappear, Burlile said.

A girl named Sassier, from Uganda, wrote Burlile a letter, thanking her for her dress. The 11-year-old recalled how she was stopped by a man while running an errand for her mother and he asked her about the dress. Sassier told him an angel named Betty gave it to her, and was watching over and protecting her. She said her explanation resulted in him letting her go home.

Since Burlile has attached tags on the dresses bearing the words, Island Angel. She spends about $200 a month of her own income to buy fabric and supplies. She also sells homemade curtains for $5 a set, and proceeds help pay for shipping dresses.

“Sewing, the dresses, the girls and what all of this means — I think about it all the time,” she said. “If this is one thing that helps them feel and be safer, and helps them press on, then every day I will continue to press on. I know what it’s like to suffer and be in pain. I also know what it’s like to have somebody care about you, give without expecting anything in return, and how hope can lead to better things.”

Burlile knows the dresses can only do so much. She shared her sadness when she found out one girl died of malaria. Dress recipients have sent her letters telling her that basic needs such as water, food and shelter, are sorely lacking in their nations. Wanting to do more in the countries the dresses go to, Burlile is organizing a Walk for Water on Nov. 17 in Kailua-Kona to raise money to build wells.

Burlile’s enthusiasm and commitment, as well as her drive to do more, inspired Costa’s participation. The St. Michael the Archangel parishioner said “(Burlile) proves she who has the least gives the most.” Costa said “this simple act of kindness” is more than giving a girl, perhaps, her first dress.

“It’s hope of escaping and hope for a better life,” she said. “With that hope, comes change.”

Besides adding a level of protection, dresses transform the recipients. Joy Sturgill of Pound, Va., has witnessed the transformation first-hand while she and a fellow Norton Church of God member delivered care packages in Ethiopia. Besides supplies, more than 200 girls received dresses from the Dress A Girl Around The World Project.

“Instantly, there’s this change,” Sturgill said. “You see the smile, followed by them standing a little taller with a sense of self-respect and a feeling like somebody cares about them. There’s joy. Your heart just flutters in happiness.”

Hoping to replicate that moment again, Sturgill and her family visited the Big Island this week to learn from Burlile how to construct dresses and bags, which they and other church members will spend the next several months making in preparation of their missionary trip in March 2013.

Burlile said there’s a constant need for more fabric, volunteers to make dresses and monetary donations. Anyone can do it, she added. She pointed Monday to 9-year-old Zoe Stevens, of Kailua-Kona, who began sewing her second dress alongside Sturgill and proclaimed, “The girls will be happy.”

For more information, call Burlile at 854-9473 or St. Michael the Archangel at 326-7771.