California High Schooler Helps Clothe Homeless Teens With His Own Designs: 'My Primary Goal is for Them to Feel Confident'
“The best thing is knowing I can take something that no one wanted," says Dillon, "and transform it into something that make them feel beautiful.”
The discard piles of once trendy clothes are getting an upgrade while giving homeless teens togs that spark their confidence through the crafty work of Malibu, California high school junior Dillon Eisman.
Aware that people generally donate clothing that’s less than desirable to the underprivileged, Eisman, 16, took his interest in fashion and taught himself how to sew in order to turn the dowdy duds into hot fashion.
“I practiced on clothes my mom was going to donate to Goodwill and I was able to turn them into something trendy that teens would actually want to wear,” Dillon tells PEOPLE. “Often, when people donate the clothes don’t fit well and there’s no style and honestly, they look horrible.”
In that spirit, after years of donating clothes, he taught himself to sew and began creating his own designs and started his nonprofit “Sew Swag” in late 2014. Although he’s been a fan of “Project Runway” for years, and certainly takes fashion mentor Tim Gunn’s mantra “make it work” to heart, he didn’t set out to be a fashion designer.
That changed two years ago when Dillon toured the Los Angeles LBGT Center and saw the limited clothing options the homeless kids had available to them. He quickly realized he could improve their self-esteem by giving them something they would be proud to wear.
So he grabbed his mom’s old sewing machine, which she says she didn’t even know how to use, and went on wikiHow.com to learn sewing basics. He then turned to YouTube to educate himself on how to make circle skirts and other sewing projects.
It was a quick jump as he began using his own patterns to design clothes using material from donated clothing. Soon he was adding snaps and bling, and reconfiguring material like his mom’s old silk robe into skirts and tops.
“Everything I know about sewing and design, I learned from the Internet,” says Dillon. “You really can find everything you need online.”
At first he was turning his mom’s old tulle skirt into something straight out of the Betsy Johnson collection. Her sadly outdate bell bottoms were transformed into a fashionable skirt with leather panels. Then he started purchasing from thrift stores.
“The thing about kids, especially kids in high school, is that what you are wearing affects your confidence and mood. You want to look good, especially if you go out for a job interview,” says Dillon’s mom Jennifer, 48, a stay-at-home mom. “It’s not shallow. Clothes really can impact how you feel about yourself. And in high school, Dillon was in tune with that.”
Dillon says teens just want to feel comfortable and fit in with their peers. And providing fun clothing for them makes a difference. Recently, Dillon stopped by Los Angeles LGBT Center to drop off about seven large bags of clothing and shoes.
“We don’t keep records of clothing donations by individuals,” says Jennifer Dawson, but noted that Dillon has been an active supporter of the Center since he was about 11. “He’s amazing.”
Dillon says he is currently partnering with other charities like the Downtown Women’s Shelter, but because of confidentiality issues and the agencies’ need to protect their clients, Dillon has not been able to see for himself the impact of his generosity.
“I haven’t been able to meet personally with the teens, but (the local agencies) send me clothes to recycle and then they deliver the clothes,” Dillon says.
Dawson is a main contact person for Dillon, and she applauds his efforts to help out in this area that has been sadly neglected.
“Dillon is a brilliant young man who has already made a huge difference in his community as a leader, activist and philanthropist,” says Dawson. “We’re very grateful for all the work he has done.”
Everything has been produced solely by Dillon.
“It is difficult to find people to help me, even my friends, because not many people know how to pattern basic clothes or sew,” Dillon says. “I am hoping to produce many more, faster in this way. Also, I am hoping to gather a coalition of local designers, many of whom I meet through their connection to the center, to help turn this one-man operation into a more streamlined process to produce items more efficiently and in greater quantity.”
The Los Angeles Times reported last fall that the number of homeless young people appears to be growing. In 2014-15, the Los Angeles County of Office of Education estimated the population at almost 55,000, with a preliminary count for 2016 around 63,000. The paper reported that about one in 45 students in the nation’s second largest school district does not have stable housing.
Teens living on the streets is a much lower number, and harder to calculate. Many, agencies say, end up crashing at their friend’s or relative’s homes.
“When I upcycle clothes for disadvantaged teens, my primary goal is for them to feel confident with who they are through what they wear,” Dillon says. “The best thing is knowing I can take something that no one wanted and transform it into something that make them feel beautiful once they put it on.”
Eisman’s extracurricular activities include being the founding president of Life Gets Better Together at Malibu High School, a small public school with less than 700 students in grades 9-12.
“Dillon is a spirited, high energy young man,” says his high school counselor Luke Sferra. “He balances his serious approach to academics with efforts to foster fairness, equality and acceptance in our school and great community.”
Although Dillon says he is the only openly gay male in his high school, the Things Get Better club has several members who are bisexual or lesbian. The club currently has about 45 members, with most being allies in helping teens in the LBGT community.
“I think a lot of my friends are generous people who are involved in community service, but when you are a teenager trying to get through school and working on homework until 9 or 10 at night, it’s hard to commit to a cause,” Eisman says. “But a lot of people my age have good intentions, they just aren’t as determined as me.”
Eisman is the class president and serves as head of the Student Voices Committee.
“He’s one of my most brilliant students in AP Calculus,” says Malibu High School teacher Nahla Seikali. “He is very driven, a hard worker, motivated and gets things done. I’ve seen him many times tearing up talking about his involvement with the LGBT community.”
Bonnie Thoreson, Eisman’s AP English teacher, says Dillon has “an incredible energy and vision” who sees school as a place that should have a respectful climate of learning and opportunities for students to enjoy school activities.
“He sees the world the way he would like it to be and works hard to make this happen,” Thoreson says. “He sees the world as a place that should be inclusive and accepting of all people, regardless of sexual orientation, race, religion and is a tireless proponent of tolerance and equity. Beyond that, he is upbeat, cheerful and gives his unique flair to everything he does. In short, he’s is a very impressive young man.”
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