Empathy for a prom dress program

LOS ANGELES, June 10 (JTA) — I remember what I was wearing on just about every first date with every boyfriend I’ve ever had.

I remember what I wore on the first day of fifth grade — a hand-me-down green flowered dress with red polyester knee socks.

I remember the pastel, flowered, zipper-at-the-ankle Guess jeans my mom bought me at full retail because I had stopped biting my nails for two weeks.

I remember the dress I wore to my senior prom — not because it was beautiful, but because it was returned. After spending all kinds of cash on college applications and SAT prep courses, I knew my mom was tapped out. I didn’t want to ask her for more money for a prom dress because I knew she’d find a way to give it to me, and I knew she didn’t have it.

My after-school job at Lombardi’s Sporting Goods wasn’t exactly flooding my coffers with cash. I got an idea: Buy a dress from Nordstrom department store, renowned for its liberal return policy, tuck in the tags and take it back to the store the next day.

I bought a stretchy black dress with spaghetti straps and a satin skirt. Shoes were courtesy of my friend Tasha — a half-size too big but a perfect match.

I felt clever, but I also felt ashamed. The Nordstrom saleslady to whom I returned the garment shot me a look that said, “I have to take this dress back, but you and I both know you wore it to the prom last night.” Dickens was even starting to feel a little sorry for me.

I had forgotten about that dress until I read about Dana Green, 29, a freelance public relations consultant who launched a program to provide nearly new, stylish formal dresses to young women for proms, graduations and other celebrations. The idea started with the bridesmaid’s dresses in her own closet she knew she’d never wear again. She collected dresses from friends. She stockpiled shoes and accessories.

In two years, she has given away close to 100 dresses in connection with A Place Called Home, a youth center in South Central Los Angeles — similar programs exist in other cities in North America.

With a black beaded dress and a sea-foam, sleeveless bridesmaid’s frock slung over my shoulder, I headed toward A Place Called Home to meet Green, who had set up a makeshift boutique in the playground.

It was “Clothes Give-Away Day,” thanks to donations from local Temple Israel, and mothers, kids and strollers were crowded into a line, waiting in the late afternoon heat to go through the piles of clothes. Green was standing near a rack of gowns, yellow, pink, silver, all fresh from the cleaners in plastic bags.

I added mine to the rack and dropped off a couple pairs of faux pearl earrings to go with them.

“This is a city of haves and have-nots,” Green told me, squinting into the sun. “This is a great way for people to share what they have.”

She continued, “The reward is to see the smiles on the girls’ faces. What girl doesn’t know how great if feels to put on a pretty dress? It builds great self-esteem.”

I sat on a nearby bench and watched a teen-age girl twirl in a pink satin, floor-length gown, her jeans and sneakers peeking out from the bottom. Her friend had on a sophisticated silver silk number. Both were beaming.

“Some girls wouldn’t even be able to go to the prom at all because they couldn’t afford a dress,” Green pointed out.

Ray Gallegos, executive director of A Place Called Home, took me on a tour of the center, which has 4,000 members between ages nine and 20. There’s a music room, a tutoring center, a kitchen that serves three meals a day, arts and crafts, a busy computer lab.

Even a guy like Gallegos, who told me he was both stabbed and shot during his gang days, is hip to the importance of the right dress.

“After Dana was here last, the buzz went on for days. She gave the girls a whole new picture of themselves,” he said. It wasn’t just the dresses, he added, but “seeing people from an affluent background come down here and spend time with them, help them pick out clothes.”

The at-risk youth Gallegos works with have what he calls “a brick around the neck stance,” something the dresses helped alleviate, if just a little.

My frocks haven’t found a home yet, but when they do, they won’t have to be returned. In fact, Green tells me that the dresses are often passed along to a cousin or friend, recycled and given new life until they wear out.

Green is hoping to expand her program, so that next spring she can set up four different “boutiques” around Los Angeles. She needs shoes, new hosiery, makeup and, of course, those dresses you know you’ll never wear again but can’t bring yourself to throw away.

Teresa Strasser is a 20-something writer and performer living in Los Angeles. She has an Emmy award for her writing on Comedy Central’s “Win Ben Stein’s Money.”

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