, Newburyport, MA

April 4, 2014

Fashioning a solution

Salvation Army's Prom Spectacular offers free dresses, advice

By James Pouliot

---- — The Salvation Army in Newburyport has announced an initiative to help relieve the cost of attending prom.

Partnering with seafood restaurant Michael’s Harborside, The Salvation Army is accepting used prom dresses, jewelry and accessories in advance of its May 4 Prom Spectacular.

The event will consist of local teenage girls choosing dresses, shoes and accessories from the donated collection. The Salvation Army has enlisted local hairdressers, nail technicians and merchants to help the girls complete their prom look, dispensing fashion advice and setting up appointments for the big day, according to Salvation Army Lt. Meghan Brunelle.

“We want it to be that the girls get the ‘Bloomingdale’s shopping experience’: up-to-date dress, up-to-date hairstyle, fashion, experience and advice,” Brunelle said. “Prom has always been a great time for me and many other girls, so I wouldn’t want them to lose out because they couldn’t afford to go.”

Though prom is normally a time of celebration for high school girls and boys, it can be expensive to prepare for, Brunelle said.

While boys are traditionally expected to foot the bill for a rented tuxedo, a corsage and sometimes a limo, girls often require entire new outfits, along with the costs of fancy hairstyles and lacquered nails. And that’s after paying for tickets, which can often run upward of $50 on their own.

Much of that investment becomes unusable afterward, with even gently used dresses being permanently stored away. Brunelle has made it her mission for seven years to bring those good-as-new dresses back into circulation, this time in service of girls who can’t afford to buy an outfit for just one night.

“How many people wear the same dress over and over again?” she said. “Nobody. They all go out and buy new ones. I had a million of them in my closet that were going to waste. Rather than throw them away or donate them to a store, at least you can donate them to a place that will help out another generation of girls who are going to the prom.”

Brunelle has sent fliers to local schools to advertise the Prom Spectacular, including Newburyport High School and Triton Regional High School in Byfield. Triton Principal Kathryn Dawe was pleased to hear that students have a local way to lighten the burden of prom preparation.

“Some of the dresses can go anywhere from $250 to $500, depending on the financial situation,” Dawe said, noting that there are few rental options for dresses. “I think that’s an extraordinary amount of money to pay for a dress and shoes and all the other things. It gets pretty expensive.”

Dawe’s students have felt the financial squeeze, with some approaching the administration for assistance with celebrating prom on a budget. Triton, she says, does what it can on its own to help these students pay for tickets.

“It doesn’t happen in a whole lot of situations, but we certainly want students to have the full experience of being with their class and being able to participate,” she said.

This isn’t the first time Brunelle has offered an out for financially strapped prom-goers: Seven years ago, in a previous posting in Milford, she used the local newspaper to solicit donations to a program she called “Kate’s Closet,” named after her sister, who helped fund the project. That inaugural project consisted simply of tables laden with prom dresses.

“I know it’s a need because there’s not many organizations that do this,” Brunelle said. “I know how much it cost me and what a burden it was to us. ... I can imagine there are some people that don’t go because of the money, so I’ll serve as many people as will come.”

Michael’s Harborside has joined the effort, setting up its own drop box to receive donations outside The Salvation Army’s hours, according to Lisa Wettencamp of Newburyport Development, which owns the restaurant. Michael’s Harborside regularly collaborates with The Salvation Army to provide community dinners and other support.

Though their customers generally haven’t heard of the donations yet, Wettencamp hopes that word will get out.

“I’ve made an announcement and posted at a restaurant, and some of the staff have brought theirs in,” she said. “I have two teenage girls. I still have their high school prom dresses, so it’s a great way to get rid of them and know that they’re going to be used rather than just drop them in a collection box.”

If the event is successful, Brunelle hopes The Salvation Army’s approach will go even further and become a fixture of the annual prom season.

Want to donate?

Dresses, jewelry, shoes, purses and other accessories are being accepted through May 1 at The Salvation Army’s Newburyport Corps Community Center, 40 Water St., and at Michael’s Harborside, 1 Tournament Wharf.

Items should be clean and new or gently used.

Local salons and stores that would like to offer style guidance to teens at the May 4 event are welcome to call 978-465-0883.

If you go

What: Prom Spectacular

When: Sunday, May 4, 2 to 5 p.m.

Where: Newburyport Corps Community Center, 40 Water St.

How much: Free