The Prom Closet ~ A Cinderella Story ~

by | Apr 1, 2010 | Community, Features

Prom is an important rite of passage for most teens; that one night when boys become handsome young men and girls are transformed into beautiful princesses. Long after Prom is past, photos capturing that special moment are displayed as proof of one’s youth and beauty and often remembered as much for what was worn as what actually happened. 

This glamour comes at a high price. According to Your Prom Magazine, Proms are a $2.7 billion industry nationwide. Typical Prom goers spend several hundred dollars for this special night. Sadly, this is an expense some students’ families can’t afford, especially in low income areas of the River Valley.
With this in mind, Johnson County Westside High School ‘Project Succeed’ Coordinator, Tammy Clinton, started the Prom Closet in 2005 to enable girls without financial means to attend Prom and other formal events. As more than 75% of Westside’s students live below the poverty level, Clinton has become a surrogate Fairy Godmother to hundreds of real-life Cinderellas over the past five years.

Clinton‘s inspiration for the Prom Closet came after a simple conversation with one of her high school students.
“I asked the girl if she was going to the Prom and she said “no” because she didn’t have a dress and couldn’t afford to get one. Then I asked if she would go to Prom if I could locate a dress for her to wear. The girl said “yes” so I contacted past graduates to donate their old formals to the school and that’s how it began,” she explained.
“I started writing letters to formal shops and manufacturers all over the US and ended up having an overwhelming response,” said Clinton. Eventually, the Prom Closet became so well stocked, Clinton had to take over the school library storage room as a closet for more than 800 dresses, some still in boxes. Since then, Clinton has sent dresses to four other rural schools to help them start up similar programs.

“It’s been a labor of love. Nothing makes me feel any better than seeing these girls look like princesses,” said Clinton. The program is 100% voluntary and receives no stipend from the school district. All the girls have to do is pay $10 for dry cleaning the dress after it is worn. Depending on the student’s circumstances we sometimes even help pay the cleaning bill, as all our dresses are cleaned and repaired before they are used again, she added.
While Clinton loves playing the part of fairy godmother for these girls, she encourages family members to come and “shop” with their girls.
“Family support is a huge part of the closet’s success. I don’t want to take anything away from the Mother-Daughter relationship,” said Clinton, the mother of twin girls who graduated from Westside a few years ago.

For many girls at Westside, the Prom Closet is real dreams come true. Out of the nine girls chosen to be part of the Westside Homecoming Court this year, seven girls got their dresses from the Prom Closet and a record number of dresses were borrowed for the March 20 Prom, mostly in bright colors like hot pink, lime green and turquoise. “Because of the current economy, parents were especially appreciative this year,” said Clinton.
In February, Westside gave the girls another reason to strut their stuff. With so many beautiful gowns available, the school hosted its first annual Westside Pageant in late February. Westside High School Secretary and Pageant Coordinator, Vickie Golden said, “I believe that giving these young women any extra reason to get dolled up in these beautiful gowns is an opportunity that some of them would otherwise never get”.
And how do these girls feel about wearing borrowed dresses?
“Oh, Wow! The first time I put on the dress I felt like Cinderella in heaven,” said Senior Salutatorian, Priscilla Her, of her first Homecoming dance when she was chosen as a sophomore member of the ‘court’. The oldest of six children of Hmong parents from Laos and Thailand who moved to the River Valley from Wisconsin five years ago, Her said she was overwhelmed at first, because she didn’t own a fancy dress and had never worn make-up or been to a hair salon. Fortunately, Clinton and several classmates rallied to help Her choose the right dress and make the day special.
“I think the experience of wearing pretty dresses has changed me a lot,” said Her, who was chosen as Senior Maid to this year’s Football Homecoming. “I feel more confident now. I’ve changed my style and wear a little more make-up.”
Senior Amber Hurtt has borrowed dresses for six different school events over the years. “It takes a lot of stress off me to know I will have a dress that makes me feel so special. I probably wouldn’t have been able to be in Homecoming if not for the Prom Closet,” she said.

“The red dress I wore last year was so expensive looking people didn’t believe I got it from the Prom Closet,” said the petite Senior Sarah Hurst. She has worn dresses from the Prom Closet on three different occasions, and was impressed by the selection of dresses and how well the closet was organized.
“It doesn’t bother me that a few of these dresses have been worn by a lot of girls. It’s just nice to know I can come and get a dress,” said Senior Kylee Firkins. Her older sister Azure Firkins used the Prom Closet when Kylee was in 8th grade. Kylee has used the Prom Closet four times.
The Prom Closet has hundred of dresses in sample size 8, but larger dresses, particularly in sizes 14 to 24, are still in short supply. We can always use large sized dresses, said Clinton. Shoes and a few pieces of jewelry are available for the girls to borrow, but the program still “desperately” needs more jewelry, said Clinton. “You can’t do something like this without a lot of support.”
Although Clinton tried to help Westside boys with their expenses by asking for donations from tuxedo manufacturers and rental stores, she has yet to get any “tux” donations. “Maybe, it’s because tuxedos are worn over and over until they can’t be worn anymore,” said Clinton. She also said that some male students have fundraised for the event, especially during the 2006- 07 school year, when the Prom Closet was organized as a school project.
Anyone wishing to donate to the Prom Closet or organize a Prom Closet for their school is asked to contact Clinton at Westside High School in Johnson County.


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