- Associated Press - Saturday, December 26, 2015

TACOMA, Wash. (AP) - Kelsey Beil misses jeans and sweatshirts, and she’s not alone.

For the Tacoma resident and hundreds of other women around the world, wearing a dress for 31 straight days has become a team sport.

Two years ago, a southern California woman named Blythe Hill began an effort to combat human trafficking, which she called “Dressember.” She asked women around the world to wear a dress each day of December to raise money and awareness about sexual exploitation, slavery and other forms of violent oppression against women.

A total of 1,233 women did, and they raised $165,000.

By 2014, the number of women participating in Dressember was more than 2,600, and the group pulled in $465,000.

“They money goes to two groups that fight human trafficking,” Beil said. “IJM is the International Justice Mission, and A21 is a domestic group leading the fight.”

One aspect of Dressember is that women should use their particular talents to promote awareness and raise funds. Two Tacoma photographers, Jessica Uhler and Lisa Hepfer, jumped in and did that a month early this year.

“We decided to start our own group and wound up with 59 members, most of them local but some around the country and some from other countries,” Uhler said. “What’s amazing is we’re the largest team in Dressember.”

In November, Uhler and Hepfer invited their teammates to a photo shoot. They hoped the photos taken that day would wind up on social media as the women fundraised or otherwise drew attention to their cause.

“Our team name is Beauty and Dignity,” Uhler said.

“Human trafficking is such a huge problem, and it’s not just happening overseas. It happens in Tacoma. It’s a little thing to do, for awareness and for money.”

Some of the team members, like Beil, put up an online challenge to friends and those just learning about Dressember.

“I have a masters in social work, had a one-year internship with the Salvation Army in Ohio, working with victims of trafficking,” Beil said. “Now I work for the Pierce County AIDS Foundation, and volunteer with the Pierce County Anti-trafficking Network.

“I saw someone had raised money by offering to wear their wedding dress all day through an average day, and it inspired me. I said on Facebook, if I got $900 in donations, I’d wear my wedding dress to the ‘Star Wars’ opening weekend.”

Beil blew past that milestone and is near $1,000 in pledges. On the Saturday of opening weekend at a 5 p.m. showing at the Lakewood Mall AMC, she and her husband James should have been easy to spot.

Last week, she forewarned: “I’ll be the woman in the bridal gown waiting in line for popcorn.”

If the challenge is lighthearted, Beil said, the issue of human trafficking is not.

“I’ve worked with the FBI and local police, and they’re never without cases,” Beil said. “Youths are so much more vulnerable; we see more of them victimized.”

The thinking among criminals who traffic humans is: You can sell a drug once, you can sell a person over and over.

“That’s a horrible way to look at human being,” Beil said.

It also is what drives the women of Dressember.

“We’ve raised $12,000 already as a team, and awareness is growing,” Uhler said. “When I walked into my coffee stand in a dress with a ‘Dressember’ pin on, someone usually knows what I’m doing.

“I don’t have enough dresses to wear a different one each day, so I wear the same five or six with a different sweater each day.”

How does she explain the impressive size of the Beauty and Dignity team?

“Lisa and I can’t take credit for the size of the group,” she said. “Once women hear about it, they want to be part of a collective voice.”

They are making use of various talents. One woman is wearing a dress each day of December, but as an artist interested in fashion, she also drew a different dress each day. She then had an art show and sold each “dress” for $25 apiece.

“I hope that, one, we raise awareness of the issue tenfold,” Beil said. “And two, that we raise money.”

For many of the women, it’s personal.

“It comes down to the fact that I have a daughter,” Hepfer said. “If someone were to exploit or abuse or victimize her, I’d be asking my sisters, ‘Why didn’t you do something?’

“This is my way of doing something.”


Information from: The News Tribune, https://www.thenewstribune.com

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