Raiding 'Catherine's Closet' for a prom dress
The line stretched from one end of a Newark hotel to the other. Three hundred and twenty-three teenage girls were waiting to try on prom dresses.Skip to next paragraph
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By lunchtime, 300 were leaving with gowns. Sandy Kessler couldn't have been more ecstatic.
"We had girls in wheelchairs, deaf girls, pregnant girls. We had girls that didn't even look like girls, who had never owned a piece of clothing that wasn't jeans," she recalls later. "But for at least one night, every single one of those girls is going to be a princess."
Offering high school students one unforgettable evening of elegance has become the driving force that causes Dr. Kessler a financial adviser with a doctorate in educational psychology to leap out of bed early every morning with a lengthy to-do list forming in her head.
So far this year she has collected 2,000 prom gowns for local girls, along with 60 tuxedos for boys. Her dream: ensuring that every teen who wants to and particularly those in low-income areas can attend his or her high school prom and feel wonderful doing so.
"This is about self-image," she says. "This is their opportunity to shine, to dress up and be in the world of glamour."
For many teenagers, the prom is the crowning moment of high school. And for kids in urban areas, the prom often looms as a particularly large event, almost the equivalent of a wedding or coming-of-age ceremony, sometimes involving a considerable family investment.
In Philadelphia, for example, Camille Grant and Kia Alston, seniors at Martin Luther King Jr. Senior High School, say they began planning for their prom dresses while still in ninth grade. Camille purchased her sparkly gold dress with the help of her grandmother, while one of Kia's aunts is making a black-and-white single-strap dress for her.
But not every teen has that kind of family backing, and many find the sky-high costs associated with proms almost impossible to handle.
That's why an East Orange, N.J., high school teacher a client of Kessler's who helps teachers plan their retirement suggested that she collect prom dresses for teens in need.
It was a project right up Kessler's alley. A self-confessed clothes horse, Kessler says she was accustomed to filling her car with her own used clothes and driving them to wherever they could be of use.
But the prom project appealed to her particularly. Not only did she love the idea of helping teenagers experience a bit of glamour, but she just plain loved prom dresses.
She immediately began calling friends, acquaintances, and potential corporate donors. Her standards, however, are very high. She does accept slightly used gowns, but prefers brand new ones still bearing price tags. Dresses that are "matronly" or un-stylish don't make the cut.
She is thrilled that some among the 2,000 gowns she has collected bear designer labels like Armani, Ralph Lauren, and Jessica McClintock.
Kessler has already organized a dress giveaway for Newark, N.J., students, which was held at a local high school. This second one, at a Newark hotel, was open to any teen who needed a dress.
The remaining gowns were color-coded and stored in Kessler's garage, and she's still collecting for and planning a third giveaway on New York City's lower East Side May 24. Next year she hopes to see the project expand to several other cities.
Dani Grubbs, a senior at Newark's Technology High School, says her first reaction was skeptical. "Who gives away dresses?" she asks.