Twin Cities non-profit plays fairy godmotherby Marianne Combs, Minnesota Public Radio
Saturday night is prom night for Richfield Senior High School students. Among the young women attending the party will be several who wear dresses they got for free. A local charity is working to take the financial stress out of a teenage rite of passage.
Richfield, Minn. — Eighteen-year-old Brittany Turner and her mom Phyllis are sitting outside the cafeteria of Richfield Senior High. Brittany is excitedly waiting her turn to pick out a free prom dress. She says she has a unique fashion sense and she's a little worried about finding what she wants.
"I just don't want a long dress," says Brittany. "My mom thinks stockings are still in and they're not; she thinks open-toed shoes are cute and I don't think [they're] cute. So I'm going to satisfy what I want today."
Still, Brittany admits she might need a little help, "because you can't do it without your mom, I don't think. She knows old remedies like, 'Zip this, squeeze this, push this up.' She just knows things," Brittany says.
Phyllis Turner is just as excited as her daughter. She never attended the prom when she was young and she regrets it. She says she could afford to buy Brittany a dress but it wouldn't likely be the dress her daughter really wants.
"You want your kids to participate but the cost can be very expensive, especially when you have more than one sibling in the house and you have to think about college," says Turner. "But you want them to have a memorable experience."
That's where Ever After Gowns comes in. It was formed three years ago by members of the Minnesota chapter of the Kappa Alpha Theta Sorority. Co-founder Maggie Harris says they wanted to do something for young women in need.
"When families are under financial strain, one of the first things to go is the fun. That gets cut out right away," says Harris. "We feel like the girls deserve to experience this teenage rite of passage. It seems to be getting more and more expensive, and if we can ease that burden and provide them with a memory that will last forever, we're happy to do it."
Ever After Gowns gets all of its dresses through donations. Some of them come brand-new from stores. Others were given by women who wore them once to a wedding or never wore them at all.
"Some people have the luxury to buy three and they say they'll pick one and return the others, and they never return them, so they pass those on to us as well," says Harris.
This year the charity is serving approximately 200 teenage girls from three high schools, chosen according to need and merit.
On the day set aside to try on gowns, the Richfield Senior High cafeteria has been converted into a department store floor. Dresses of all sizes and colors, silk and velvet and taffeta, hang from long racks. Romantic songs play on a stereo. Cafeteria tables at one end of the room have been stood on end and hung with sheets to serve as makeshift dressing rooms. Each student gets her own personal shopper who helps her to try on different dresses and find the perfect fit.
Brittany Turner and her mom Phyllis quickly go through several dresses. One is pink and sparkly, but too slinky and not flattering. Then Brittany tries on a black dress that her mom thinks is too plain. Finally they find a dress they can agree upon. It's pale blue, strapless, with sparkles and it needs just a couple of small adjustments.
With that done, the Turners move on to tables covered with purses, shoes and jewelry. Maggie Harris says Ever After Gowns strives to make the day an event.
"So they get a personal shopper, they get the dress, the shoes the accessories, we have a make-up artist showing tips and trends, they get free make-up, they get their hair done for free. So it's really a whole day where we wanted the girl to feel like a princess and not just getting an article of clothing."
To Phyllis Turner, the prom is almost like a wedding.
"You're preparing the bride for that special occasion. And I think that is the final say before graduation," says Turner. "'I can dress elegant, I can look like a young lady, I can go out on a date, I can conduct myself in a fashionable way.' I think it's very important in a young lady's life to experience this."
Turner says Ever After Gowns is not just a charity. It's providing an opportunity for women of all ages to get together, have fun and support one another.