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Dignity dresses: Soroptimists sew seeds of peace
April 08, 2016 Frank Marquez   

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Frank Marquez/Gering Citizen Members of the Soroptomists of Scotts Bluff County Margo Hartman, Cindy Dickenson (standing), and Sandy Gutwein measure, cut and sew fabric remnants on Sunday at Gutwein’s home. They planned to sew 50 Dignity Dresses which will be delivered to orphanages in Vietnam this summer through a program called Children of Peace International.

The stakes can be high for orphan girls in Vietnam, their reputation and lives constantly at risk.

Binh Rybacki, a resident of Loveland, Colorado, knows this firsthand. When she returned to her homeland in 1993, nearly two decades after a hasty evacuation before the fall of Saigon in 1975 during the Vietnam War, she founded a humanitarian organization named Children of Peace International. Her efforts have had ripple effects, including here in the Nebraska Panhandle.

Scottsbluff resident Margo Hartman first met Rybacki in 1999 as governor of the region for Soroptimist International, Inc. Together they embarked on a project to build a vocational school at the Tam Binh Orphanage in Ho Chi Minh City, with a focus on garnering humanitarian support for the thousands of Vietnam’s orphans.

This past Sunday, at the Scottsbluff home of Sandy Gutwein, she and a handful of other Soroptimists pooled their efforts to sew dresses for orphaned Vietnamese girls, who, because they are poor, are targeted because of their apparel. By wearing dresses which are considered more appropriate for women of status, they are less likely to be abused or used in sex trafficking, Hartman said.

To help make the dresses, Gutwein and Hartman called on the assistance of Cindy Dickinson, Cricket Simmons, Connie McDonnough, Terry Rajewich (pronounced Ry-wich), Cher Maybee, Nina Betz, and her daughter Lisa Betz-Marquez.

Rybacki said the girls at the orphanages normally wear uniforms during the school day, but during outings to the park, “they may wear flip-flops that don’t match, nothing matches, and nothing is clean. It’s too dangerous. People know immediately.”

Wearing donated dresses and shoes, “predators pass them by thinking if they can afford such clothing, they can also afford to put someone in jail, in a heartbeat,” Rybacki said, describing how she has dressed down, wearing flip-flops, PJs, and broad hat, while following them during what she called “test drives. The men don’t bother the girls.”

Rybacki excitedly rattled off the progress her schools have made. Generations of children have grown up, able to pursue vocations abroad, then to return to the schools to give their support. “We have our own doctors, teachers, dental hygienists, and a bucket full of engineers.”

Doing their part, the nine women set to work cutting and measuring material across fold-up tables propped in the spacious sitting room of Gutwein’s home a few miles north of the sugar factory.

Gutwein and Hartman decided to take on such a project in a cause which is central to the Soroptimist’s creed of advancing the lives of young women from around the world. Hartman said, “This is just the start of such projects involving women who live and work in Scottsbluff and Gering.”

The goal, according to Gutwein, was to make about 50 dresses to deliver to Rybacki later this month at a Soroptimist convention in Fort Collins, Colo. Gutwein and Hartman said they would have a go at making another batch of dresses before month’s end – the combined allotment which would make its way to Vietnam for one of two trips Rybacki makes annually.

Rybacki said she’ll be making a trip sometime this summer.

Hartman, the interim director for Community Action Plan of West Nebraska, has been a Soroptimist member for about 25 years, and Gutwien, a co-owner of Gutwein Appraisal along with her husband, is a 15-year member, are well accustomed to being involved in the local community. Familiar with the kind of effort it takes, they can relate to Binh’s progress overseas. “The vocational school is just one of several projects,” Hartman said. “There about 4,000 children she helps with medical care and making the girls feel like they are part of something.”

Rybacki’s journey began at the age of 18, when she was evacuated from Vietnam before the fall of Saigon in 1975. According to her website, she returned to Vietnam in 1993 to make peace with her homeland and look for missing relatives. What she found there affected her deeply. There were children working as street peddlers and prostitutes. If they couldn’t make money, they were begging.

In the same year, committed to change, she and her husband Jack founded Children of Peace International to provide aid to state-operated orphanages throughout the country. The organization supports 14 orphanages across 10 Vietnam provinces, providing medical and dental care, vocational training, and food provisions.

When Rybacki saw the way young orphans were dressed, she knew they were at risk of being victimized. She therefore campaigned for the assistance in making dresses from pillowcases. Girls who wear dresses are thought to be more affluent, a culture-driven perception, and are not as likely to be targeted for sex trafficking, or abuse.

For more information on Children of Peace International or to make donations, visit www.childrenofpeace.org, find them on Facebook or call Rybacki at 970-667-3716.

For more information about Soroptimists of Scotts Bluff County, contact Alisa Rindels at 308-220-8543.
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