Dresses 4 Drought with Karen Johnson

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A desire to do something for the families experiencing the devastation of drought has led Wingham resident Karen Johnson to set up a unique initiative – Dresses 4 Drought.  We caught up with Karen, to find out more about it.

Hi Karen. Can you tell our readers a bit about your background, and how long you have been in the Manning Valley area? 

I was born in the Wingham area and, together with all my family, have lived here my whole life. I worked at Taree Motor Registry for 28 years, and now work at Manning Valley Dental in Taree, with a fabulous bunch of women. I also enjoy hand embroidery, quilting and my “fur babies”.

You recently set up a fabulous initiative – Dresses 4 Drought – which involves collecting donations of formal wear, including clothing, jewellery, shoes, and accessories. Can you give our readers a bit more of an insight into this project?

Like many of us watching the terrible drought unfold, I wanted to help those in the drought areas of NSW in some way. I felt for the young people in those communities who would not want to add pressure to their parents by asking to spend money on a formal outfit that often does not get worn again, while animals and loved ones go without. In fact, what we heard was that up to 60% of students were opting not to attend formals for this reason!  

Both my daughters’ formal dresses, as well as a bridesmaid’s dress, were hanging in the wardrobe, and I wanted them to go to someone who would appreciate them … So, the idea for Dresses 4 Drought was born.

Since then, we have been collecting not only dresses, but suits, accessories, shoes and jewellery. 

It’s a huge undertaking. Have you ever done anything like this before?

I have done many fundraising events in the past, but nothing on this scale. I would never have been able to do this without the help and support of my daughter, Josie.

What are the logistics involved in actually getting the formal wear to the recipients?  Are you going to deliver the donations in person?

A colleague at work, Denyelle Mullay, found out via friends that there were also some individuals and businesses on the Central Coast who were collecting formal wear for drought stricken communities in NSW, and these people have family connections in the Tamworth area who they were going to use as distribution channels.  This was great, because it has enabled us to coordinate the delivery of the outfits to schools in the Tamworth region via these wonderful people on the Central Coast.  

Denyelle is kindly taking the donations to her friend, Narelle, at Ocean Beach Dry Cleaners in Umina, and from there the donations are being driven to Tamworth on the October long weekend in a small bus which has been generously donated, together with various family in 4WDs who will make the trip.

Who have you been working with in those areas to coordinate those on the receiving end? Do you already have a list of people who have expressed an interest in receiving these donations?

Once the donations arrive in Tamworth, we have a local connection who will assist with distribution to the various schools in the region.

I understand that there are at least 13 schools in the Tamworth area who have requested help with receiving formal wear for their students. 

It really has been a team effort, and we would like to thank everyone who has been involved; from those who donated, right through to those who have kindly delivered the donations.

What’s been the reaction from these communities?

So far, one load has already been gratefully received, and the students have had fun selecting from the gorgeous array of stunning dresses, suits and accessories.

However, as the bulk of our donations have not gone yet, we haven’t had a lot of feedback, but I am sure that everyone involved will be appreciative, grateful and overwhelmed by everyone’s generosity. 

I am looking forward to receiving photos once the deliveries arrive and will post on Facebook.

How have you been getting donations so far, and what’s been the community response to the call-out for pre-loved formal wear?

We have had such a great response from the community, and are so overwhelmed with how many people are willing to get involved and donate.  

We have set up local collection points at Ashlea Road Boutique Wingham, Manning Valley Dental Taree and Great Lakes Dental Forster.  

Also, a lot of local businesses have really got behind our initiative and donated many items, including Top of the Town Shoes Wingham, Dress Up in Wingham, and Manning Shoe Store Taree, and also the Reps for Ashlea Road Boutique kindly donated dresses.

As of mid-September, we have collected a total of 294 dresses, jewellery, a lot of shoes and accessories plus suits, shirts and jackets for the boys from our local area, and we have donations still arriving daily.   

Unfortunately, we won’t be accepting donations after 20th September, as we needed to make sure that we were able to get the formal wear distributed to the schools in time for the formals.

We estimate that when this interview goes to print, we will have clothed 400 people with the generous donations from our local area!

Would you consider doing this again next year if needed?

Yes, I would definitely consider doing it again next year. We’ve also asked the students to “pay it forward”, and I heard that the Tamworth region are thinking of setting up their own “Dress Library”, so in future, students in need won’t go without.

Thanks Karen.

Interview: Ingrid Bayer.

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