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Dressmakers have designs on helping

Rwandan children wearing some of the dresses made by Nicomekl Rangers Heidi Gulka

In the Nicomekl Rangers' last year together as girl guides, the four friends set to make their final act count.

And it seems safe to say they have done just that, having clothed more than a dozen Rwandan orphans with colourful, patterned dresses they spent two months sewing.

Heidi Gulka, Hanna Otto, Anna Reynolds and Meagan Veltri took on the project in September after hearing of Poverty Reduction, Education and Family Empowerment in Rwanda (PREFER), which supports child-headed and single-parent families in a Rwandan village.

The non-profitgroup – started by former Maple Ridge resident Cathy Emmerson and husband Teste – runs a local school that is attended by more than 100 students, most of them orphans who are either living with new families in the community or whose parents can't afford to pay for tuition or basic goods and services.

Upon learning the children in the school need clothes, the Grade 11 Earl Marriott Secondary students decided to make dresses for the girls using a simple pattern in a range of children's sizes.

They appealed for fabric on Craigslist and through family members, eventually amassing a large stockpile of material in various colours and designs.

At their weekly meetings – which the Rangers usually spent planning outings, events or volunteer work – the friends spent two hours assembling the garments, with Gulka, Otto and Reynolds at sewing machines and Veltri pinning and cutting out the patterns on paper.

To speed up production, they met for a sewing marathon on a school professional development day, working from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.

By December, the girls had made 16 dresses, as well as 18 bags that students can use to carry school supplies.

A PREFER co-ordinator delivered the wares to Rwanda, and, just last week, the Rangers received photos of girls in the school wearing them.

"It was a (great) experience to see them wearing our dresses, to see their smiling faces," Veltri said. "Our hard work paid off."

"I think seeing the pictures was the best part," Otto added.

The friends are now planning to send all their left-over fabric to the Rwandan school, where they said two girls recently graduated and acquired a sewing machine.

Their effort to help the African village was the girls' first international project in a long list of charitable initiatives that includes donating toiletries and blankets to a local women's shelter at Christmastime, lending a hand at the former Reptile Refuge and volunteering with area churches and community events.

"It's satisfying," Otto said of giving back.

"We're so privileged to have all this stuff and to give back to people who don't have as much, it's a good feeling," Gulka noted.

"And we have fun doing it," Reynolds added.

The dress-making is the project they are most proud of, and also their last as girl guides.

With a busy Grade 12 year ahead – and Otto planning a student exchange to France next year – the friends retired from the program that they have been in together since Grade 7.

"It's a wonderful program," Otto said. "I don't know how my life would've been if I hadn't been in it all these years."

The four assure their adventures together will continue, with a summer road trip already in the planning.