County DHS gives the gift of beauty for local prom nights

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Helping to make high school girls look and feel beautiful on prom night, while eliminating the financial burden for those in need, is what the Project Prom Giveaway is all about.

The 11th annual event, hosted by the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, provided new or gently used gowns to eligible girls who attend an Allegheny County high school.

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THE DRESS—Tiona Chatman poses in the dress she selected at the Project Prom Shop in Century III Mall during the Allegheny County Department of Human Services’ Project Prom Giveaway. (Photos by J.L. Martello)

Although the annual four-day event ended March 20, there is still an opportunity for girls to receive free prom attire. On Saturday, March 29, the Project Prom Shop, located in Century III Mall, will open its doors to the public from 10 a.m.-4 p.m., while still giving away free gowns and accessories to those who qualify. No item will cost more that $25.

“The turnout for the Project Prom Giveaway 2014 was exceptional. To date we have been able to outfit nearly 300 students in their perfect dress, with matching shoes and accessories to complete the ensemble. We still have an amazing inventory of beautiful gowns and hope eligible students will come to the shop on March 29 for their last chance to get a free dress this season,” said Ondréa Burton, manager of Events and Donation at the Allegheny County DHS. “Although March 29 is the public sale, where all of the gowns and accessories will be sold for $25 or less, students who bring the proper eligibility identification to the shop, will get their dress free of charge.”

According to an ABC News report, in 2013 the national average of the cost of going to a prom was $1,139; that was a 5 percent increase from the average cost of $1,178 in 2012.

“Attending your prom is one of those experiences, that no matter how old you get, you remember. It’s one of those quintessential high school events that people can talk about for a lifetime,” said Burton. “Generally when young ladies are getting ready to go to the prom it’s their senior year and their families are putting out exorbitant amounts of money for college applications, deposits on rooms and books; so for families that are in a difficult financial position to try and come up with an additional $1,000, in addition to all the other things that are just as important as going to the prom, is a challenge, which is why Project Prom is such a valuable asset to the community.”

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FAIRY GOD MOTHER-Ondréa Burton, director of the Project Prom event, holds up several dresses as she helps high school girls find the perfect prom dress.

More than 2,000 students have benefited from the giveaway since its inception more than a decade ago. This year, DHS hopes to outfit at least 500 young ladies.

To be eligible for a free dress, high school students must live in Allegheny County and either receive services or have a family member who receives services through DHS; receive or be eligible to receive a free or reduced-price school lunch; or have a parent or caretaker receiving unemployment benefits.

“To watch the eyes of a young person light up when they find that perfect dress, the one that fits well and makes them embrace their beautiful self is a priceless feeling.” Burton said. “As a mother, I connect with the parents… And the emotions of gratitude that (they) express and share are just as, if not more, rewarding.”

Tiona Chatman, a 16-year-old Moon Area High School student who visited the Project Prom Shop, called it “a wonderful and fun experience.”

“I feel beautiful, I feel like a princess. I’m very excited and I think this (DHS) is a great organization.” She said, adding that if not for this opportunity, she probably would not be able to attend her May prom.

Chatman’s mother, Nicole Carter, said, “I think it’s a blessing to many families and it’s great that someone took time out to think of those less fortunate. It means a great deal and it takes a lot of stress off of parents who want to do for their children and are unable to. It’s priceless to have your pick of any dress and to see the smile on her (Chatman’s) face.”

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Shoes, shoes, shoes!

In addition to assisting young ladies with prom attire, DHS also has something for young men. On Thursday, April 10, for the third year in a row, it will offer 100 pre-registered gentlemen a three-hour workshop on etiquette, along with a catered dinner, at the UPMC Shadyside Herberman Center.

The evening will feature discussions on topics such as Dignity and Respect, Positive Self Identity and Personal Visions from guest speakers former Pittsburgh Steeler Charlie Batch and Cameron Wright, University of Pittsburgh Panther basketball star and award winner.

Participants will receive a certificate for a free tuxedo rental from Tuxedo Junction. Registration is required before March 31 and Burton said there are a limited number of spaces still available.

“Project Prom for Gentlemen provides an opportunity for eligible high school (males) to be mentored for one evening on the principles of respectful conduct. Learning these skills at a young age will benefit the attendees not only at their prom, but will be carried with them for a lifetime,” she said.

In addition to thanking sponsors One Enchanted Evening and UPMC’s Center for Engagement and Inclusion, Burton said she’d also like to thank the community for its continued support.

(To register for Project Prom for Gentleman, call the Events and Donations Team at 412-350-3428 or email EventandDonationsTeam@AlleghentyCounty.us)

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