After more than 40 years of working in the food and pharmacy industries, Ron and Bobbi Thomson retired in 2013. Eager to find something they could pour their time and energy into, the Redmond, Oregon, natives decided to take an annual trip dedicated to a worthy cause.
It wasn’t long before Bobbi found a charitable cause that has completely derailed the couple’s retirement plans in a wonderful way.
“I was looking for something to do in my retirement and I heard about making dresses for needy girls in Africa on the TV,” Bobbi says. “I thought to myself, ‘I can make dresses out of pillow cases!’”
Bobbi, who spent the 12 years leading to her retirement working as a pharmacy technician, searched the internet and discovered Little Dresses for Africa online. The nonprofit organization is dedicated to providing relief for impoverished children in Africa and anywhere extreme poverty persists.
The organization offers easy-to-follow instructions on its website for making simple-patterned dresses out of pillowcases. Pillowcases are used because of their variety of colors, pre-sewn hems and side seams and their general availability.
The organization collects and distributes the homemade dresses to girls and young women living in Africa and other impoverished regions of the world.
These small tokens of compassion are just part of the organization’s numerous relief efforts, which include providing clean water, routine medical services and other supplies.
“My heart has always gone out to the poorest of the poor,” Bobbi says. “When I heard about Little Dresses for Africa, I just thought it was a wonderful idea. I could see a little girl putting on a dress that reached her ankles. I could see them growing up in the dresses and the dresses eventually turning into shirts. It’s something simple they can use for years, and I knew how to sew. We’ve been doing it ever since.”
In 2015, the Thomsons decided to make the charity an important part of their lives. They converted an apartment attached to their home into a sewing workshop and pledged to make 2,015 dresses in commemoration of the year.
Needing raw materials to achieve their lofty goal, the couple placed an ad in Ruralite magazine, asking readers to donate pillowcases, fabric, string and other sewing materials.
“The day the magazine hit my mailbox, we had people showing up in our driveway, donating box after box of supplies,” Bobbi says. “They just kept coming. We were getting 15 to 25 boxes a day. It just mushroomed, and I was shocked by how many generous people there were.”
Thanks to the overwhelming support they received, the Thomsons exceeded their 2015 goal. Since then, they have dedicated their lives to supporting Little Dresses for Africa full time.
“After we made that commitment in 2015, it just took off from there,” says Ron, who helps Bobbi with every aspect of their charity work and sews some of the dresses. “Since then, it’s become something we are both very passionate about. It’s fulfilling to help others, and there are a lot of people who benefit from good causes like these.”
The Thomsons have continued to manufacture dresses from their home, setting higher production goals each year.
To meet their self-imposed demands, they moved Bobbi’s workshop from the apartment to a decommissioned two-bedroom manufactured home in 2017. Her small workshop was transformed into much larger sewing factory with a manufacturing line. They produce 24 to 40 dresses a day and work upward of 80 hours a week.
Where many might find running such an operation a daunting task, the former small business owners are no strangers to the logistical challenges of organizing, packing and shipping their weekly deliveries to Little Dresses for Africa. They have exceeded their production goals each year.
“When I started making the pillowcase dresses, I really just wanted to help people and make their day just a little better,” Bobbi says. “Inside each box we ship out, there are 12 dresses. I like to imagine 12 smiles of little girls who might never own a dress if it wasn’t for organizations like this.”
In 2018, the Thomsons asked Ruralite for assistance again, this time asking for colorful T-shirts to ship with each dress. Magazine readers answered the call, and the Thompsons expect to produce more than 3,000 dresses with the materials donated in 2019.
“I really want to thank Ruralite for giving me my pay-it-forward avenue,” Bobbi says. “There is a lot of need in the world, but it’s amazing how many people are willing to help. All you have to do is ask.”