Mesa charity “assembly line” dresses orphans The Mesa Tribune | The Hometown Newspaper for the city of Mesa, AZ

Mesa charity “assembly line” dresses orphans

Mesa charity “assembly line” dresses orphans

By Sandra Draper
Tribune Contributor

After starting with one simple outfit, a Mesa woman has built a charity – and an assembly
line – that makes clothes for orphans worldwide.

When Darlene Carpenter semiretired in 2009, she wasn’t ready for the recliner.

“I wanted to volunteer, but nothing hit my hot button,” she recalled.

She loved sewing, so she whipped
up a simple child’s dress made from
two T-shirts and adorned with appliqued hearts.

She showed the dress to a women’s fellowship group and invited members to help her make the dresses for orphanages worldwide.

“Five of us started around my kitchen table,” she said.

As others joined them, they quickly outgrew her home. Her husband, Dan, was friends with the then-pastor of Apache Wells Community Church in Mesa, and that pastor offered the fledgling group use of the church’s Fellowship Hall one morning a week.

With financial help from family and friends, Carpenter started rounding up second-hand Pfaff sewing machines that she found for sale on Craigslist and eBay.

“The Pfaff brand is just perfect for the type of sewing we do,” she said.

The group was incorporated as a 501c3 charity and Dresses for Orphans was born.

Shortly thereafter, Carpenter was diagnosed with gallbladder cancer and underwent radiation and chemotherapy.

Now cancer free for 10 years, she is thankful that running Dresses for Orphans took her mind off her own worries.

She thinks Dresses for Orphans volunteers get as much as they give, finding inspiration from the Bible’s James 1:27 verse “to look after widows and orphans” as especially appropriate.

“At the time I started, I was 100 percent focused on the kids. ‘They have a need. We can do something to fulfill that need,’” Carpenter explained.

“But a fringe benefit is the friendship and camaraderie that developed among our volunteers, many of them widows. My ladies overall are extremely faithful. They schedule their lives around our volunteer sessions and wouldn’t think of not coming unless they were sick.”

In February, the group celebrated the creation of its 50,000th outfit.

True to their giving nature, volunteers used the occasion to raise funds to buy gifts and necessities for Changing Lives Center, a part of the Phoenix Rescue Mission focused on women and children.

Dresses for Orphans raises the money it needs to buy the T-shirts and supplies. Volunteers use donated fabric for the appliques. Because the cost of overseas shipping would be prohibitive, the group sends the clothes to stateside missionaries who deliver them as they travel to their worldwide mission locations.

The volunteers let nothing go to waste. Material that is unsuitable for appliques is turned into pillowcases and donated to local shelters. The final scraps are made into dog beds that are donated to animal shelters.

As orphanages began receiving the dresses, they reached out and asked if anything could be made
for boys.

So, the group added T-shirts with appliqued stars to its repertoire.

These dresses and shirts have been sent to more than 200 orphanages in 42 countries.

“I never dreamed of doing anything this big,” Carpenter said.

By spring of 2020, the sewing group numbered about 80 volunteers and met each Wednesday morning, working in assembly line fashion.

The Dresses for Orphans has adopted an assembly-line process rivalling that of Henry Ford’s Model T. Among the specialties:

Applique makers who create the hearts and stars that adorn the clothes.

Color coordinators who pick out what color T-shirts the volunteers will work on that week. 

Trimmers who cut the bottoms off second T-shirts to make the “skirt” portion of the dress.

Workers who iron the heart and star appliques in place.

Sewers who take the dresses and T-shirts home to do the zigzag stitching around the hearts and stars.

Sewers who do decorative stitching around the sleeves and hems.

Sewers who add “Hearts ‘N Hugs” tags and add bows to the dresses.

Pressers who do the final ironing of the finished dresses and shirts.

Shipping preppers who fold and shrink wrap the clothes for mailing.

During Arizona’s snowbird season, meetings expanded to two shifts to accommodate all the volunteers. And women who volunteered with the Mesa group in the winter brought the concept to their home states the rest of the year.

There are now chapters in North Dakota, South Dakota and Ohio.

After 10 years, use of the church’s Fellowship Hall is no longer an option.

“The current pastor has reached out to the community and increased the church’s use of the room,” she said. “They need the space we were using, so we were having to set up and tear down our sewing machines after each session.

“The church was extremely good for us, but the church is growing and, frankly, we are also.”

Carpenter and her board of directors took a leap of faith, taking on the added burden of paying rent. Dresses for Orphans moved into a storefront location at 4448 E. Main St., Suite 14, in Mesa in February.

Darlene was excited about the options that having their own space would provide them. They would have room for more volunteers and flexible work schedules.

Sadly, the coronavirus outbreak has kept the volunteers from gathering.

Not ones to sit back and relax, they turned their talents to sewing thousands of COVID-19 masks from their homes. The masks have gone to hospitals, other health care workers, the Navajo Nation and a U.S. Naval base in East Africa.

After a 12-week hiatus, the group resumed last week with social distancing in place, masks recommended and reducing the number of sewing machines from two per table to one.

Dresses  for  Orphans has taken on a three-year lease on their new location without a guarantee of funds to pay
the rent.

“I’m concerned,” Carpenter said. “I wish I had enough money to cover the lease. But we are funded by people who believe in what we’re doing, and we do fundraisers. God knows all about what we’re doing, and he has a plan in mind.”

Information: or contact Darlene Carpenter by phone or text at 480-807-2672. She can also be reached via email at 

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