Colwood woman finds strength by working to help others

For Rita Paulhus, a terminal diagnosis has led to a passion project for overseas children in need.

Rita Paulhus shows off some of the dresses she’s made for little girls around the world in her Colwood home.

Rita Paulhus shows off some of the dresses she’s made for little girls around the world in her Colwood home.

Sometimes there’s a silver lining, but in Rita Paulhus’s dresses, the lining is usually pink or red.

“In March 2015 I was diagnosed with terminal cancer,” she said, sitting in the sewing room of her Colwood home. “I cleared 40 years of craft material to make this a palliative care room.”

But when her cancer symptoms didn’t immediately take a turn for the worse, Paulhus decided to rethink the space. She’s not sure how she stumbled across their website – some may call it fate – but it was at that time she discovered Hope 4 Women International’s Dress a Girl Around the World campaign. Their goal is to elevate the self-esteem of girls around the world and they have delivered roughly 500,000 dresses through the campaign.

After discovering this, Paulhus dusted off the little black Singer sewing machine she’s had for 50 years and bought a self-threading serger. “Every girl deserves a new dress and this is probably the only new dress they’ll ever get,” she said. “They’re hand delivered to the girls so the girls actually get the dresses.”

Paulhus sews all of the dresses with the help of her friend, Margaret Murphy. So far the pair have sewn more than 100 outfits. Earlier this year they sent two batches overseas with Doctors Without Borders volunteers. The first saw 20 dresses go to Guatemala and the second shipment was 30 delivered to Ethiopia. After reading in the Gazette about trips volunteers with the Westshore Sunrise Rotary Club have made to Haiti, Paulhus decided that would be the perfect place to send some of the dresses.

Through a friend she knew from dog sitting, she met Clare Fletcher, who needed someone to watch her dog. Paulhus spoke about the overseas dress project and Fletcher quickly got involved. She went out and bought new underwear to send in the pockets of the dresses.

When Paulhus mentioned she was trying to track down Bob Beckett and the team heading to Haiti, Fletcher was able to connect the two.

“I cried when I picked those dresses up,” Fletcher said after delivering them to the Langford fire hall before the team left. “The dresses are amazing … They’re just so well made. There’s so much love in each one.”

Paulhus added, “every one has to be as beautiful as the others, so no little girl feels like she got less.”

But Fletcher wasn’t just blown away by the level of detail and care that has gone into each dress. “She’s got such a golden heart,” Fletcher added.

After the dresses were sent to Haiti, Paulhus’s stockpile started to dwindle. Now, she and Murphy have their sights set on sending at least another 50 dresses to Guatemala in January. After that they plan to send another 50 to Ethiopia next summer. Paulhus added it’s a daunting task when her closet is empty.

Her hope is that others will join her little operation. “What I need is more ladies to sew and we need fabric donations,” she said, listing thread, buttons and elastic.

She’s hoping that some residents of the West Shore or others around the region hear her story and think it’s a perfect project in which to get involved.

Or, if fellow sewing enthusiasts have cotton fabric or cotton-blends stockpiled that they don’t know what to do with, she noted, it doesn’t take much to make a dress for a baby.

“It would really help a lot in the whole process,” Paulhus said. “It’s funny how you tell someone and they tell someone and it grows from there.”

katie@goldstreamgazette.com