Fairy godmothers exist in Central Oregon — or at least volunteers who might as well be.
“Getting a dress for a dance is like really exciting and that’s like a big moment,” said Julia McDonald, volunteer and Assistance League Teen Advisory Council member. “I think people who might not have had that opportunity before or like can’t usually afford to get a nice dress, or one that they feel confident in, it’s definitely nice to see how happy they are.”
Fourteen alcoves in the back room at the Assistance League of Bend are filled with dresses made of colorful satin, tulle and nearly every fabric imaginable. These gowns, frocks and elegant costumes are waiting for teen girls throughout Deschutes County who want a chance to sparkle at homecoming and prom.
Regardless of financial need, “We want all girls to come,” said Janet Martin, the chair of Cinderella’s Closet and volunteer with the Assistance League for two and a half years.
Cinderella’s Closet opened in spring 2018. The Assistance League modeled it after national nonprofit Becca’s Closet, whose Bend chapter closed in 2014. The new effort started with prom and quickly expanded. The dresses are now available for homecoming, and volunteers are taking mobile dress shops to Bend-La Pine high schools.
“We received a grant from a local donor in 2018, … (and) at about the same time, an Assistance League chapter in Temecula, California, was closing its thrift shop and offered to give us 90 dresses,” said Martin.
Ninety dresses seemed like a lot at the time, but volunteers wanted more variety.
“So, we posted on Facebook, Girlfriend Swap (a Facebook group dedicated to buying, selling and trading items in Central Oregon) and (NextDoor),” Martin said. “The community response was amazing.”
In mid-September the “boutique,” as Martin and the other volunteers have dubbed their Assistance League location, was bustling with volunteers moving dresses into mobile racks to go to Summit High School for its first pop-up event.
Everything from shorter satin dresses to full flouncy princess-style gowns lined the racks ready for spin tests.
Born from memories
Their inaugural year, Cinderella’s Closet received 150 dresses from Abby’s Closet in Portland, a similar nonprofit.
Abby’s Closet co-founder Sally Egland explained via email that “two years ago, we started a program called ‘Sharing the Love,’ where we are donating dresses to organizations and high schools that have underserved students and are located too far from Portland to attend our giveaway event.”
The organization’s annual Prom Dress Giveaway at the Oregon Convention Center features more than 7,000 dresses.
This year Abby’s Closet was able to donate 100 dresses to Cinderella’s Closet.
Martin said since then the project has received more than 1,000 dresses as well as shoes, handbags and jewelry to borrow and a few choice cosmetics to keep.
Getting the girls to the dresses hasn’t been easy, so Cinderella’s Closet decided to “go to the masses,” as volunteer Michelle Anderson indicated.
“The first year … we had them make appointments. … We quickly found that girls don’t like to make appointments,” Martin said, citing busy schedules and school activities as a deterrent to keeping the consultations.
“So we decided instead of doing it that way, was to have it just open like a retail store”
The Boutique is open a few days during homecoming and prom season for girls to pop in at their leisure and take a look at the hundreds of dresses and accessories.
For the 2019 prom season, Cinderella’s Closet volunteers started showing up at the schools carrying racks of dresses in several styles and sizes.
Anderson noted another slight issue, “When we’re in the school, they don’t want to talk to even us. … It’s so much better to shop with your friends.”
Enter the Teen Advisory Council.
Anderson’s daughter, Emma, 17, joined the program last year.
The Summit High School senior said, “All of our moms are a part of Assistance League, and they were kind of looking for a project to work on, … and they decided that bringing on a teen advisory council would be a good way to help reach out to the schools and get that link to the next generation who need the dresses anyways.”
Michelle Anderson later noted, “It is really fun to have an activity you can do with your kids. … I feel like their generation is very community minded.”
The 11 teens that make up the council take an active part in selecting what dresses make it on the racks. Nicolina Arker, also 17 and from Summit, likes the selection process: “We kind of look through and see what teens might actually want to wear and what might be outdated.”
“We think about everyone, not just what I would wear or what my friends might wear,” McDonald said. “Because there’s lots of different styles out there, so we definitely have a wide variety of different types of dresses.”
Involving the teens in this project has multiple benefits, Martin said.
“They’re promoting the pop-ups,” she said, “And they are able to volunteer as well and help the girls find dresses. It’s kind of neat that we’re getting a younger generation also involved in serving the community.”
The teens use social media to promote the event, too, such as Instagram.
The handle @cinderellas closetbend is only a couple of weeks old, but it already has over 50 followers and features some of the Teen Advisory Council members showing off the styles of dresses they have available.
“The main way we advertise … it’s like, ‘you need one, we’ve got em.’ We’re definitely trying to advertise it as a resource for everyone no matter if you can afford a dress or not.”
Emma, Arker and McDonald all cite the environmental push for reducing waste and recycling as a reason more students are opting for borrowing than for buying their formal dance dresses.
“Usually for prom or homecoming you wear this dress one time and you just never use it again so it comes back and gets multiple uses cause other people get to wear it too,” said McDonald.
Emma interjected, “You don’t need four prom dresses that you’re never gonna wear again.”
Arker went on to say, “One of the main things, I feel like people come is … they haven’t found a dress or want to find one last minute,” adding, “I got my prom dress from here last year … because I just couldn’t find any that I really wanted, and I was like, ‘well I might as well get a free dress!’”
Saying yes to the dress
No matter the reason, the teen council members and adult volunteers at Assistance League are there to help.
“It definitely also instills a lot of confidence in the people,” Emma said. “Especially when we get to help them because they’ll like put on a dress and like ‘I don’t know.’ But then the rest of us will be like ‘that looks so good on you!’ And get a lot of positive feedback which just builds their confidence.”
The process of borrowing one of the dresses is simple. Show up to a pop-up or boutique (or make an appointment outside open hours) and walk out with a dress, shoes, clutch and/or makeup. There’s even a few ties available to match with the dresses to adorn their dates’ tuxedos.
Students are asked to return the dresses within a week following the dance. They don’t need to clean them.
“We have a relationship with Cathy’s Cleaners: They do the dry cleaning,” Martin pointed out.
For Alexis O’Malley, 17, attending last year’s pop-up at Marshall gave her the “perfect” dress. Finances were the main reason for opting to borrow a dress from Cinderella’s Closet.
Finding the right dress was the next hurdle. O’Malley was looking for a classic, sleek, long dress, “like fancy, but not over the top.”
“A lot of them just weren’t my style until I saw this one that was perfect for me, and somehow it fit me perfectly and it worked perfect.”
She added that upon seeing the dress, her friends, many of whom also borrowed dresses, loved it too.
“Me and my boyfriend were called ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ because I looked like Belle I guess,” O’Malley said laughing.
While there is no requirement when it comes to what dresses can be donated, Cinderella’s Closet is well stocked with sizes 00 to about a size 12, but there are fewer options above that.
“That’s where we need help,” Martin said.
The teen council has a wish of their own, “A big goal for us this year is to get more people from Mountain View because we just don’t have as many connections over there,” said Emma.
Mostly, it’s all about getting the word out.
“I think that’s the biggest challenge,” Martin said. “And having that reputation that we have a lot of dresses, and a lot of pretty dresses.”
It seems to be working. At Summit High School’s pop-up held Sept. 21, over 60 young women attended, and 16 dresses were borrowed.
“I think everyone has a different need,” said Michelle Anderson.
“And there really shouldn’t be any difference between what your need is and if it’s the last minute and you need a dress, or if it’s really expensive and you can’t afford a dress right now, but just for everyone to be included and have the opportunity to have an experience going to a high school dance if they want to, that’s the point. And it’s universal. It doesn’t matter what your reason is, why you need a dress. We don’t care. Come get a dress. No questions asked.”