BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe — The orphan girls stood silently as the brown paper parcels were opened, their eyes widening as they began to think maybe this was something for them.
They squealed with delight when colorful new dresses were handed to them to try on.
A new dress is a remarkable and precious thing in this impoverished country. Zimbabwe has been battered by economic collapse, political turmoil, violence and disease in recent years. A cholera outbreak in late 2008 killed more than 4,000 people and sickened at least 10,000.
But those numbers are small compared to the ongoing AIDS epidemic, which has killed millions across central and southern Africa, leaving countless children orphaned — like those in the home in Bulawayo, which is assisted by the Baptist Union of Zimbabwe.
“The kids are all smiles,” said Ann Mitchell, executive director of the Baptist Union of Zimbabwe. “The materials used are a constant cause of amazement. They will last for ages, even if they are pounded on a rock in the washing process. The designs are so very different from anything seen here. What a blessing!”
Getting the dresses delivered was made possible by Southern Baptist missionaries who partnered with staff from Baptist Global Response. General relief donations — given by Baptists across the United States through their state conventions, North American Mission Board and International Mission Board — paid for 600 dresses to be delivered to Zimbabwe.
The dresses themselves, however, came from the hands of Addilene Leonard of Louisburg, a smallish town about 30 minutes from Raleigh.
Baptists use Bibles, puppets, videos and many other tools for missions. Leonard uses her sewing machine.
Her small drapery workshop sits beside her hillside house on Highway 56 near the outskirts of Louisburg, but from here Leonard has seen a world in need — and responded.
Making 600 dresses would be a big assignment for even a good seamstress, but Leonard is a sewing machine master. An active 87 years old, she operated a drapery business for some 50 years. Her drapes still hang in many homes and offices around the area, designed by her and stitched together by her six workers. She even sent custom drapes to other states and as far away as Canada and Greece.
The big shop is closed now. Her last big project was in 2008, installing drapes in the library of Louisburg College in town — a big project requiring some 800 yards of fabric. But she still has her smaller basement sewing room with a big work table and the four types of sewing machines required to make drapes.
Leonard has always blended her business with her Christian faith. A member of Maple Springs Baptist Church since 1949, she still sings in the choir. Fellow members say it takes more than bad weather to keep her from Sunday services.
Over the years she has made numerous missions trips, often traveling with a sewing machine so she could make and donate drapes and curtains. Making these as a ministry occurred to her years ago when she attended a Woman’s Missionary Union meeting at Camp Mundo Vista, the WMU camp near Asheboro.
“I saw there was a need for curtains and drapes in the cottages and the office. They really needed somebody’s touch,” she recalls.
She returned with her sewing machine and whipped up curtains for two offices and two cottages.
She made window treatments for offices and cottages of Kennedy Home, part of the Baptist Children’s Homes of North Carolina; Ridgecrest Conference Center near Asheville; and for churches in West Virginia and Vermont, among others.
She and her sister, Nannie Ree, spent a week in a small West Virginia town while they sewed up drapes and got them installed. “We ate our meals in a gas station snack bar.”
In Montpelier, Vt., she made drapes and furniture slip covers for a three-story house being used as a church led by her daughter and son-in-law, Southern Baptist missionaries Connie and Jim Markham.
Leonard is modest about her life’s work, and spurns any praise, but allows that she has indeed had an interesting life. “I haven’t sprouted any wings yet,” she says with a smile and insists that her home missionary daughter deserves the praise.
When Leonard’s husband, Q.S., retired in the 1980s, the two traveled some and went fishing. But after he died in 1988, she dusted off her sewing machines and kept busy. “I’m not one to sit around all day watching soap operas,” she says.
Making drapes was an artistic expression for her, not just work, she says. She took up painting and turned out canvases good enough for local churches to sell for missions projects. Her rambling house is filled with travel mementos and framed inspirational verses. Leonard descends the steep steps to her sewing room carefully, but spryly for her years. She insists on staying active. “I’m 87 years old but that has nothing to do with my outlook on life,” she declares.
She is determined to stay positive and says that will help her “beat the odds.” It’s important to live as a reflection of God who made you, to follow the Ten Commandments and the commandment of Jesus to love your neighbor as yourself, she says.
“Your life is a product of what you create. I pray I’ll be productive till the day I die,” she says. And so far, she is. In recent months, for example, she has produced a DVD that teaches how to make curtains that require only graceful draping instead of sewing. “Many girls today don’t know how to sew a stitch,” she says, “and so this approach will help them.”
And those 600 dresses?
That was just part of what she made over the several months she was focused on making dresses. She actually made a total of 1,335 dresses. The others went to Haiti, another poor country where a new dress can light up faces with smiles.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Creswell is senior Cooperative Program consultant for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.)