Reedley seamstresses use sewing skills to serve

FPU graduate delivers hand-sewn dresses to Ethiopia

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Women meet at the home of Judy Isaak (far right) weekly to put together dress kits, including (from left): Sandi Bennett, Lorene Doster and Norma Warkentin.

A single dress may not seem life-changing to most of us in the United States, but for many girls around the world, it is a symbol of the love of Christ and his church.

In 2021, Judy Isaak of Reedley (California) MB Church heard about Dress A Girl through a woman in her Bible study. Dress A Girl is a nonprofit that organizes volunteers across the country and even internationally to sew dresses for girls in need around the world.

Meanwhile, a group of women at Palm Village Retirement Community in Reedley had been getting together to sew dresses under the leadership of Marilyn Chappell, a resident there. They sent completed dresses with missionaries to other countries.

When Chappell’s health made it difficult for her to continue organizing the effort, Isaak felt God calling her to step in.

“God always prepares you, and I’ve always made clothes for myself since I was a kid,” Isaak says. “The ladies at Palm Village instructed me on all the details, what came first, what came second, how all the measurements worked and so on. I learned from them and took on the leadership of it.”

From kits to dresses

Isaak began collecting donations of fabric, elastic, buttons, lace and other supplies in her home.

Each Monday, a small group of women meets at Isaak’s home to prepare dress making kits using Dress A Girl patterns. Isaak says the dresses require intermediate sewing skills, and each kit includes instructions.

She takes the kits to Reedley MB and leaves them in a designated basket for volunteers to pick up when they are able. Completed dresses are then returned to the church, labeled and stored until they can be taken to their final destination.

“My job is not really to make dresses; I do, but I don’t make as many as the other ladies do,” Isaak says. “My job is to move things through this process. And it’s a blessing.”

Isaak estimates they have sent about 400 dresses since 2021.

Women from Reedley (Calif.) MB Church, the city of Reedley and Palm Village Retirement Community stand with the dresses they sewed for Dress A Girl. From left: Mildred Ewy, Judy Isaak, JoElla Reimer, Verona Neufeld, Barbara Roberts, Cheryl Friesen, Ruth Penner, Wanda Ginder, Verna Roberts, Linda Anderson, Claudette Reiser, Mary Ann Heinrichs, Norma Warkentin, Carol Braun, Debbie Crass, Gail Hayward and Lorene Doster. Photo: John Warkentin.

In 2023, through a contact at Mennonite Central Committee, Isaak was introduced to Elsa Asrat. Asrat is the founder of Loving and Leading Others, a ministry to women and girls in Ethiopia. The Reedley sewers decided to send their completed dresses with Asrat on her annual trips to Ethiopia.

“When I first met Elsa, it was like sisters meeting,” Isaak says. “It was that rich and real.”

Serving moms and children

Asrat is herself a former refugee from Ethiopia who emigrated to Canada as a young girl.

“In every turn when life really became difficult, not knowing the culture or language and everything, there were certain women that really stood out in my life and took me under their wing,” Asrat says.

Elsa Asrat and her husband, Rudy Venegas, who is also a graduate of Fresno Pacific Univeristy, have two children. They work together to provide holistic support for women and children living in Ethiopia who are affected by HIV. Photo: Elsa Asrat

Asrat was pursuing a nursing degree in Canada when she decided to pivot in a new direction. After a trip to Fresno to visit her parents, she felt called to attend Fresno Pacific University. She graduated with degrees in communications and biblical studies, and shortly after graduation returned to Ethiopia to visit.

“I saw poverty from a different lens,” Asrat says of her trip. “I was devastated to see women and girls living on the streets and not knowing their identity.”

Asrat connected with a clinic for HIV positive children in Ethiopia and decided she wanted to do something to help their mothers as well. She founded Loving and Leading Others with the mission of “restoring identity and inspiring opportunities for women.”

“We got together with the ladies twice a week and I got to learn more about their situation, how they’re marginalized from society,” Asrat says. “I was thinking that I had to deal with the basic needs, but I learned the internal needs beyond the surface. Regardless of their background, they’re worthy in the eyes of God and created bearing the image of God.”

The organization partners with local entrepreneurial groups to provide various skills trainings such as sewing and working with leather goods.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, Asrat has been living in the U.S. full time with her young family, but she takes annual trips to Ethiopia during which she distributes as many dresses as have been created by the women in Reedley since the previous trip.

While a dress meets a practical, physical need for the women and girls in Ethiopia, Asrat says it is also so much more.

“For them to get a beautiful, colorful dress, they have become someone; it’s dignity,” Asrat says. “It gives them hope—someone from America prays for them, thinks of them.”

Isaak says they include a pocket insert in each dress that says, “Jesus loves you, so I made you this dress” along with the first name of the woman who sewed the dress.

“In our little group, we are trying to extend the love of Jesus around the world through these dresses,” she says.

Read more about Elsa Asrat’s ministry in this blog post from Fresno Pacific University.

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