Cinderellas at the prom, sans wicked stepmothers

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Think fairy godmothers come to the rescue only for Cinderella? High school seniors who can't afford to buy prom dresses are finding out otherwise.

Volunteer programs like The Glass Slipper Project in Chicago and Arizona Fairy Godmothers in Scottsdale are outfitting girls from sash to sole for free. And nothing happens to the goods at the stroke of midnight.

"For many of these ladies, prom may be the only formal event they ever go to," says Dorian Carter, executive assistant to the head of the Chicago Public School System, who helped found The Glass Slipper Project two years ago. But high expenses can put the magic of prom night out of reach for many teenagers from low-income families.

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A formal dress easily tops $200 and tickets for the event at some schools cost $100 or more per couple. At the same time, ladies' closets across the country are home to evening gowns and bridesmaids dresses worn for one special event and not touched since.

Three years ago, Ann Oliva, who works at a community service center in Washington, got the idea to bring these two groups together by giving donated dresses to students in need. When word of the project got out, "we were inundated," Ms. Oliva says. Dresses were given away in a community center set up to resemble a store, complete with dressing rooms and "salespeople." That model has been replicated in Chicago, Denver, Palm Harbor, Fla., San Diego, and Scottsdale, among others.

A program in Dallas gives away mostly new dresses. It was started six years ago by Bill Danches, owner of the retail shop Whatchamacallit Fashions. He had to watch a young customer pick out her dream dress only to have her parent explain that there was no way the family could afford it. "She started crying. I couldn't take tears like that, so I just gave her the dress," Mr. Danches says. "It was a really good feeling, so I decided to start giving away dresses."

He placed an ad in the local newspaper that announced "Free Prom Dresses" and instructed readers to call for details. The deal was (and remains) that graduating seniors who had at least a C average and qualified for free lunch programs - both demonstrated by a letter from the school - could come into the store and pick out a dress gratis.

News of the deal traveled quickly and soon Danches joined forces with a local community center, Buckner Children and Family Services, to expand the program.

Whatchamacallit has donated about 3,500 dresses over the past few years. A local bridal shop also donates dresses now, and large-size dresses are bought with an annual gift from a Texas charity.

"I get calls from people telling me that they hadn't been able to go to their prom because they couldn't afford a dress, and that they think it's the best thing in the world we're doing," Danches says.

The Buckner Prom Dress Ministry is now run out of a storefront three days a week during prom season. "It brings tears to your eyes because they say, 'You mean I don't have to bring it back?' " says Johnna Edwards, who coordinates the program.

Laterika Carson, a high school senior in Dallas, says she got a lot of compliments on the light-blue dress she picked out. "I thought the dresses would be ugly. I thought, 'That's why they're giving them away, because nobody wants them,' " she says. "But I went and they were nice - I found a lot of dresses I liked." While many girls came to the prom two weeks ago in similar fashions, Ms. Carson noted that "nobody else at the prom had a dress like I had, so I was happy."

The students receive not only dresses, but often new shoes, makeup, jewelry and purses. The Washington project has volunteer hairdressers and makeup consultants to help the young ladies figure out their hairstyles and makeup for the big night - and gift certificates for local salons are given away in drawings.

Stacey Millstein, who describes herself as "full-time fairy godmother, part-time investment broker," orchestrates a one-day giveaway in Scottsdale that this year totaled about 1,800 dresses and 1,000 goody bags with makeup, given by Revlon. Dillard's department store donated shoes and garment bags.

"We want these girls to know that there are women in the state of Arizona that care about them and want them to succeed," says Ms. Millstein, who is joined by about 50 volunteers on giveaway day.

She starts in September by contacting school counselors. Recipients come from all over the state, and the only requirement is that they present a photo student ID. "We have dads driving three hours into the city so their daughters can have a dress," Millstein says.

Getting outfitted for the prom may seem superficial in the overall scheme of graduating from high school and moving into the world, but the programs' founders say the impact goes beyond prom night.

"When you have things you miss out on at that age, it takes away from your self-esteem," says Kathy Goldberg, one of the founders of The Glass Slipper Project. "If you can take away one more thing that these young women have to miss out on - it's a small thing, but the small things in life add up."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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