Pay It Forward: 99-Year-Old Woman’s Mission to Help Children

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Lillian Weber is on a mission.

Every day she makes another dress for a small child she'll never meet.

"I could probably make two a day, but I only make one," she says.

The dresses are collected and sent overseas to little girls in Africa by a Christian outreach group called "Little Dresses for Africa".

"I have to be busy," says Lillian.

And she's been very busy.

In the past two years she's made more than 840 dresses and she plans to make 150 more by May 6th of next year.

You see, by next May, Lillian will turn 100 years old and it will be her one thousandth dress.

"It's just one of those things you learn how to do and enjoy," she says.

In Lillian's Scott County farm house are completed dresses for little girls, made from a pattern, but each with extra stitching and individual details, designed to give each child a little extra pride.

"She personalizes them all," says Lillian's daughter, Linda Purcell.  "It's not like good enough that she makes the dresses, she has to put something on the front to make it look special, to give it her touch."

What started as a hobby has become a daily labor of love.

Lillian says she starts work on a dress in the morning, takes a break during the midday, and puts finishing touches in the afternoon.

"I just think she's somebody to look up to, somebody whose not just sitting around and frittering her life away," says Tonya Urbatsch, who nominated Lillian for the "Pay It Forward" award.

"I'm amazed at her every day," adds Linda.  "I'm very, very proud of my mother."

Family and friends will continue to be proud of Lillian, well after her 1000th dress.  After all, 1000 is just a number.

"When I get to that thousand, if I'm able to.  I won't quit.  I'll go at it again because there's no reason to not do nothing."

When Lillian is finished with her dresses, her daughters deliver them to a Davenport senior living apartment complex where a group of residents have a weekly sewing appointment to make dresses for the charitable organization.

"Little Dresses for Africa" is a Christian charitable organization founded in 2008 in Michigan.

Its founder, Rachel O'Neill, says 2.5 million dresses have been distributed.

The simple dresses are distributed to orphanages, churches, and schools in Africa.

Rachel says she's traveling to Africa again in September 2014 and February 2015 and hopes to be able  to present to a child one of the dresses personally made by Lillian.

If you know someone doing good deeds for others, why not Pay It Forward?  You can nominate someone by clicking on this link.


  • jessiemoniz

    What a wonderful lady, but I want to point out that Africa is not “a world away” actually it is in the same world. Also, it is a continent, not a country. WHERE in Africa are the dresses being sent? I was also a little baffled as to why the lady couldn’t be sent pictures of children wearing her dresses. How hard is that? If privacy were the issue, the photos could be taken of the children from the back.

    • rachelalexanderoneill

      FYI, It’s not the privacy issue. It’s that we received thousands and thousands of dresses and to keep track of what dress is sent by whom to what child is logistically impossible with all volunteers and limited resources. however, we are making an exception for Lillian and are delighted to take them with us in September 2014. Thanks for your support!

  • cbjgirl

    Seems like that would be a great 100th birthday present for her…pictures of little girls in her dresses! I have a sweet friend who runs an orphanage in Africa, if anyone would need a contact. We could get a bunch of pictures, if someone were able to collect her dresses for shipping. The girls would LOVE the dresses.

    • rachelalexanderoneill

      We’re on it and will make it happen! She actually had been sending her dresses with a senior group and I didn’t have her contact information or her story until this was published. We’re excited to make this happen when I go to Malawi in September 2014. Stay tuned! thanks so much for your support!

  • Paula

    What an amazing woman and a great cause. I was wondering if there are any organizations making clothing for the boys in Africa?

    • Rachel O'Neill

      We intentionally focus on girls because of the social structure in Africa being biased, however we also take care of the little boys. We never let anyone do without regardless of their gender when we do a distribution. We do a program called “britches for boys” and as part of the program we teach that we are all children of God and all valuable. Thanks so much for asking! We are always looking for help with making the britches for boys as we never have as many as the dresses and any help for shipping is appreciated. Details on Thanks so much for your kind words! I talked to Lillian and we’ll get her dresses to the kids and get pictures when I go in September 2014.
      Rachel O’Neill, Founder and Director Little Dresses for Africa

  • Lori Finnerty

    It appears she makes the pillowcase dress with the exception that it has the simple sleeve. Do you have the pattern for that sleeve?

    • rachelalexanderoneill

      I don’t have that pattern. I believe it is just a modified version. Any simple pattern is fine with us. We just avoid buttons and zippers because they are difficult to repair there. Thanks so much for your help. We’d love for you to join our effort! Details at:

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