Making high school ladies feel like a princess on their prom night while alleviating the stress of trying to find the funds for it is what the Allegheny County Department of Human Services’ Project Prom giveaway is all about.
For more than 10 years DHS, through its staff and volunteers, has been matching ladies with the perfect dress and accessories to make the milestone night one that they will remember forever.
“I’ve come to realize that this project is a difference maker. (Not only) in the lives of the young ladies that benefit from it, but even more so in the lives of the families that are able to be the recipients of it. They are able to send their kids to the prom in the way that they would want to without the stress of how to come up with the finances to do it,” said Ondréa Burton, Events and Donations manager at the Allegheny County DHS. “It’s just a tremendous honor to be able to continue to bring this forward and provide the quality and exceptional dresses, along with the experience, that we’re able to offer these young ladies.”
Through March 19, between 3-7 p.m., eligible female high school students are able to visit the Allegheny County DHS’ Project Prom Shop, located on the third floor of Century III Mall, and select from approximately 1800 brand new or very gently used dresses and numerous accessories, such as jewelry, shoes, handbags and wraps, that have been donated from local retailers and members of the community.
Students eligible for the giveaway must live in Allegheny County and either receive services through child welfare, mental health or intellectual disability services; live in a homeless shelter or transitional or bridge housing program; receive substance use disorder treatment; or have a household member who receives utility or food assistance from a food pantry, free or reduced-price school lunches, unemployment benefits, or is on active military duty or a veteran.
Last year, the program served approximately 500 young ladies; Burton said her goal is to surpass that total. On March 14, the shop’s opening day, Burton estimates that more than 100 ladies were assisted and hopes the traffic will continue.
“We want to provide a quality experience for the young ladies,” Burton said.
And most of that, she said, is made possible through the volunteers. During the ladies’ visit to the shop, they are each given their own personal shopper to help with their selections. It’s the volunteers’ working knowledge, enthusiasm and anticipation to help the ladies, Burton said, that helps to make the project run smoother and get better each year. Many of the volunteers are “women in the community who have fallen in love with the project and return every year,” she said.
City Charter High School student Indyha Fielder, 17 of the West End, said the project is empowering because it shows that they (the students) are beautiful and agrees that it’s the volunteers that made her experience so pleasant.
“I really liked it. It was the highlight of my day, actually. Everybody was so nice and everything was well planned and color coordinated; everybody was there to help you. They want you to get the perfect dress and I loved it,” she said.
Not only did Fielder find the perfect dress, but she said she found a mentor and hopes to volunteer for Project Prom in the future as well.
Cleandra Williams, of Urban Pathway Charter School, and her mother, Sonya Williams, enjoyed their experience at the shop and were thankful for the opportunity. Cleandra said being able to visit the shop and get what she needs for her prom night helps to “relieve a lot of stress on me and my mom” and save money so that it can be put towards college rather than a dress.
“There are families that are less fortunate, so this is a great project to give them opportunities to have something (a dress) like this. Other than their wedding day, this is another opportunity for them to look like princesses,” said Sonya.
But while many find their dream dress at the shop, not everyone has the same luck. Burton said there is still a great need for plus size gowns. She explained that proceeds from the April 11 public sale of the dresses and accessories that are left will go towards getting those ladies vouchers to get their dress at One Enchanted Evening. During the public sale all dresses will be no more than $25.
Along with its Project Prom Shop, DHS also offers something for young men. On April 13 it will host its 4th annual Project Prom for Gentleman. The one-day workshop, held at the UPMC Shadyside Herberman Center, allows for 100-125 male high school students to learn etiquette from a certified etiquette coach, be mentored by male volunteers from the community on manly principles and receive a catered dinner. They will also be given a certificate for a free tuxedo rental from Tuxedo Junction.
“They will receive all the necessities young men need to know. These are lessons that they will learn for the prom, but that will last them for a lifetime,” Burton said.
With the success of Project Prom for Gentleman and after numerous requests to have a similar program for the ladies, DHS will hold its first Project Primping on May 5 at the Human Services Building on Smithfield Street, Downtown. Burton said the ladies will learn etiquette, how to do their make-up and hair, and learn wisdom from female volunteers from the community.
Allegheny County DHS’ Project Prom is made possible through the support of One Enchanted Evening and UPMC’s Center for Engagement and Inclusion, as well as from its Project Prom 5k Run and Walk fundraiser, which will be held June 6 at Hartwood Acres Park Amphitheater.
(For more information on Project Prom call the Event and Donations Team at 412-350-3428 or visit http://www.alleghenycounty.us/dhs/projectprom.aspx.)
(J.L. Martello contributed to this article.)