Youth at A Beautiful Me learn new skills, transform former dresses into new creations

With a continuous rise in fast fashion, the clothing and textile industry has become a major global contributor to environmental pollution. In the U.S. alone, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) revealed in 2018 study that the average American creates over 80 pounds of textile waste each year.

Recycling and repurposing are some of the strategies being utilized to address this growing issue and is at the heart of one of local nonprofit A Beautiful Me’s most recent endeavors.

Incorporated in 2008, A Beautiful Me opened The Closet in downtown Port Huron in January 2018 serving a dual purpose of offering programming for girls and a storefront for selling dresses.

Karen Palka, Executive Director of A Beautiful Me, says that while The Closet is intended to sell ready-to-wear garments, it’s not uncommon for a donated dress to arrive with stains or for a tear or a zipper to break while a customer is trying it on.

Abby Mitchell works on designing pillowcases made of materials from former dresses.Instead of disposing of dresses that don’t meet standards for sale, A Beautiful Me amassed hundreds of dresses over the years, storing them with the intention of finding future use. Now, these garments are being repurposed, teaching young girls sewing skills while the material is used to create a variety of items that can be sold such as pillow shams, scrunchies, and purses.

Palka says A Beautiful Me started this new aspect of the program around the summer of 2022. They spent those initial few months cutting up the material from the dresses, removing buttons and beads, and by the fall they were ready to begin sewing.

The initiative is offered as part of A Beautiful Me's free emerge360 program which offers structured learning opportunities through three certification courses where teen girls in grades 8-11 can cultivate skills such as leadership, professional etiquette, basic sewing skills, and social media and marketing concepts.

“We have good education in this community and there are different ways to get to it,” Palka says. “This is a small commitment for a long-term life gain.”

Through basic sewing skills, youths participating in this part of the program are not only learning practical techniques but also gaining confidence — and compensation for their work. The girls receive half of the consignment proceeds with the rest going to support the work of A Beautiful Me.

Harmony Fay shows off a few pillowcases created from repurposed dresses.For Harmony Fay Smith, one of the program's early participants, the experience has been positive. Despite initial apprehensions about her sewing abilities, Smith says she enjoyed the creative process and learning a new skill.

“My grandmother tried teaching me when I was young, but it didn’t go too well. So I was kind of nervous because I remember being not good at all,” Smith reflects. “Actually seeing that you can make things out of a dress is kind of cool. You look down and be like, ‘Wow, we did that.’”

Palka emphasizes the importance of investing in youth and that the program not only teaches practical skills but also helps to instill confidence.

“How you build confidence is doing something you’ve never done before,” she says. “You wouldn’t think that sewing is our lane, but building confidence is. If they can learn budgeting and problem solving, that’s going to cross over into their life skills.”

Abby Mitchell, another early participant in the program, echoes Smith's sentiments. With a background in painting, crocheting, and baking, Mitchell says she was excited to expand her crafting skills and try something new.

"I love being crafty so I was really excited to learn how to do it," she says.

Handmade hair scrunchies repurposed from dresses.Although A Beautiful Me accepts dresses and monetary donations, Palka emphasizes that the core focus of this aspect of the program — as well as The Closet — is solely on dresses.

“Anything that we don't sell — like suits, tops, or pants — is taken over to Harbor Impact Ministries as they have a free store there,” Palka says. “So we just make sure it goes to another resource in the community that might use it, but we don't collect shoes or sweaters and those kinds of things.”

Palka says the response from the community has been positive.

“Our downtown is fantastic anyway, but the community is supporting it and more people are learning about it and encouraging the girls on social media,” Palka says.

Palka says the organization plans to launch an online collection early this summer, further expanding A Beautiful Me’s reach and impact. They are also actively seeking sewing facilitators to volunteer as mentors, ensuring the sustainability of the program for years to come. Those who are interested can reach out to program coordinator Ally Birkett at (810) 662-3248.

For more information about the emerge360 program, visit
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Liz Fredendall.

Liz Fredendall is a photojournalist and communications professional with nonprofit experience. During her free time, she enjoys reading and exploring the Blue Water Area with her husband Erick and their corgi, Nori. Contact Liz at or follow her on Instagram @lizfredendallphoto.