By NBC producer
updated 1/7/2011 3:49:52 PM ET 2011-01-07T20:49:52

Less than 24 hours after our original story aired, Rachel O'Neill sent me a text message: "Crazy! Love it! $2200 in donations so far and emails by the truckload! Lots of great leads to get dresses to the kids. Lots of comments about the fact that I don't sew. Seems to encourage others with similar lack of skills."

Rachel is one of those people you know you're going to like, even before you meet.  Her energy comes across on the phone, via text message and certainly in person.  We first met her on a Saturday morning in November, in Trenton, Michigan, not far from Detroit.  We arrived early but her operation—sewing, sorting, ironing and packing thousands of dresses destined for little girls living in a handful of poor African countries—was already underway. As the morning went on, the crowd of volunteers grew to more than a hundred.  Women drove in from nearby states. Girl scouts came to help from a local high school.

Three years ago, Rachel never could have pictured what a success her idea would turn into.  She started her project, "Little Dresses for Africa," in a church basement with five friends.  Their initial plan was to sew 1,000 dresses using fabric from pillowcases and send them to needy girls. To date they've received and distributed more than 100,000 dresses, many of them much more intricately designed than the original pillowcase patterns they started with.  And the dresses keep coming.

Because of the response Rachel received after our first story aired, we decided to go back to Michigan to document just how kindhearted our viewers can be.  Instead of working from her home basement, Rachel now has a storage unit filled to the top with boxes of dresses.  She'll soon move into warehouse space donated by a Nightly News viewer.  She's received thousands in donations and thousands of emails from viewers asking how they can start their own sewing groups.  Two women from another non-profit group in Indiana, Lavenir du Mali, saw Rachel's story and drove nearly 600 miles round-trip in a rented moving van to help ship the dresses abroad.

On our trip to document this amazing gesture, correspondent Chris Jansing and I arrived in Detroit on an 18-degree day, and that's not counting the wind chill. The ground was icy, and we were certain the weather would impact the turnout of volunteers who were supposed to help load the moving van.  But like clockwork—and everything Rachel does runs like clockwork—the volunteers arrived at 10:00 am, the van arrived at 10:15 am, and the rush to load it was on.

That morning the truck pulled away with 24,000 dresses headed for girls in need, in countries all over the world.  The storage unit was nearly empty.  We went back to Rachel's house to warm up and do another short interview, and by the time we left another shipment of boxes filled with little dresses was waiting on her doorstep.

Video: From the archives: Sewing hope for little girls

  1. Closed captioning of: From the archives: Sewing hope for little girls

    >>> finally tonight, a great piece on "making a difference" for children. it happened in an almost accidental way when a woman from the detroit suburbs took a birthday trip to africa, noticed something about the children, and decided to do something about it. nbc's chris jansing has our report tonight from trenton, michigan.

    >> reporter: rachel o'neal's husband took her on a safari for her 50th birthday. but the trip would turn life as she knew it on its head. she saw a sadness in the children.

    >> when you look in these little girl 's eyes, you can see it. you can see that they know they've got a long road ahead.

    >> reporter: unable to forget their faces, show outlined a simple idea in her journal.

    >> i would like to see if a woman's group would like to sew dresses. their little clothes are so torn and filthy.

    >> reporter: her goal was ambitious, 1,000 dresses. but one problem. what were you thinking? you don't sew.

    >> no, i wasn't thinking. i just thought i want to give them something.

    >> reporter: the first night, six women made four dresses but word of mouth spread. then what happened next, rachel o'neal says she could never have imagined in a million years. boxes of dresses started showing up on her doorstep. dozens, then hundreds.

    >> montana. another mississippi. maine.

    >> reporter: more than 100,000 dresses so far. every few weeks, volunteers sort, iron and pack the dresses. and of course, sew.

    >> every dress is special.

    >> reporter: dresses for girls and now pants for boys have been mailed to 16 different countries, including the u.s. three years after scribbling in her journey, rachel o'neal looks around and is amazed.

    >> makes me want to cry. that's how i feel. i really do feel connected to these women.

    >> reporter: a journey back to africa is a connection that bridges thousands of miles. lighting the eyes and the smiles of thousands of little children . chris jansing , nbc news, trenton, michigan.

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