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Little dresses bring hope and friendship to Malawi

By Anthony Galloway
NBC News producer

Rachel O’Neill is at home in Malawi. Her real home is in Trenton, Mich., not far from Detroit. But when she arrives in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital, she is welcomed like a native.

On her most recent trip to the country last month, O'Neill was greeted at the airport by a handful of locals, people she has known and worked with for almost five years. Her visits are never routine, but this trip was special.

Anthony Galloway/NBC News

O'Neill was returning to Malawi on the five-year anniversary of her first trip to the country. It was Thanksgiving week in 2006 when she first made a commitment to sew and hand out dresses to a few thousand girls – five years ago, almost to the day, when she promised to do something small to bring smiles to the faces of girls who she knew held so much promise. O'Neill didn’t know it at the time, but her simple idea to help a few thousand girls would end up touching the lives of hundreds of thousands of women around the world.

How to help: Little Dresses for Africa

Correspondent Chris Jansing and I had the opportunity to profile O'Neill over the past 14 months, reporting her story for NBC Nightly News. Each time we meet with her, we are impressed to learn about the astounding response she continues to receive from viewers. Since our first story aired in December 2010, O'Neill has received more than 400,000 dresses from all 50 states. The dresses arrive on her home doorstep and she, along with a dedicated army of volunteers, makes sure they get to needy girls throughout Africa.

The day before Thanksgiving, Jansing and I traveled to meet O'Neill in the village of Thobola, about 100 miles from Lilongwe, to witness firsthand what we had seen in so many photos and videos. There’s no easy way to get there. Eighteen hours in flight and three connections to the capital city, then a two-and-a-half hour drive south to the countryside, picking up fuel when you can, because Malawi suffers from a fuel shortage. But when you get to the end of the dirt road that leads to the village, you know instantly why O'Neill makes the trip.

Thobola is a simple town perched on a hill overlooking a green valley. Most people live in small, thatched-roof huts, pump their water from a well and only have basic nourishment. Still, despite their lack of traditional western resources, the kids’ smiles are radiant and their singing is contagious. They incorporate all of our names into a song: Rachel, Chris, Anthony, and also the names of O'Neill’s family and friends, Dave Taylor, Kandyce Muniz, Jerry and Mark Adams, who have come with her to help distribute the dresses.

Anthony Galloway/NBC News

It is a long, hot day in the unrelenting sunshine, but the girls are patient. It’s striking when O'Neill tells us the dresses may be the only new things these girls have ever been given. The larger message only sinks in later. In a place like Thobola, a brand-new, handmade dress is not just a piece of clothing. It’s a symbol of hope and a gesture of friendship from women 8,000 miles away. It’s one small thing a girl can hold on to as the sun sets and Rachel O’Neill prepares to make the long journey back to Michigan, knowing her little idea brought happiness to thousands of little girls today.