Dana Davis believes that every girl should feel like a princess. To wear a beautiful gown, wear her hair up, maybe with a tiara or tiny flowers or jewels tucked inside her curls.
As a single mom with a daughter, Rachel, now in college, Dana vividly remembers Rachel's senior prom and how she scrimped and saved and went without for months so Rachel would never feel left out.
"So often as she grew up, Rachel was painfully aware of our lack of finances," Dana says. "When it came time for prom, I didn't want her to have to settle."
They shopped off-season and hit the clearance racks. Rachel's dress, a strapless strawberry pink chiffon, made her feel beautiful, exactly as her mother had hoped she would feel.
Two years ago, as Dana helped Rachel pack to go off to college, they found themselves inside Rachel's closet going through her clothes and reminiscing. As they got to Rachel's prom dress they started to talk about how special that night was for both of them.
Rachel knew the sacrifice her mother had made for her, and they kicked around an idea for a place where girls could go to get a prom dress for free. They laughed because the idea sounded absurd. Besides, how could a single mom and an 18-year-old girl heading off to college get enough prom dresses together for an event? Where would they do it? And who would help?
One evening while at her Working Christian Women fellowship group at her church, Cornerstone Baptist Church in Inverness, Florida, Dana mentioned her and Rachel's idea.
"I told our group that I wanted to have 125 prom dresses and for 10 girls to come to our event. I thought that was dreaming big," Dana says.
The women in the group, about 15 of them, unanimously agreed to sponsor this crazy idea. That was January, with prom only a few months away. They had no money, just a desire to affect the lives of young girls in their community. They believed that God cared about prom dresses and up-dos and high-heeled sandals, and started asking their friends and co-workers if they would like to donate their old prom dresses.
The local newspaper got wind of it and featured their cause on the front page of the paper. Dresses came pouring in. Local bridal shops and consignment shops donated scores of dresses, shoes, and jewelry. Local salons donated gift certificates for hair and nail services the day of the prom.
By March, they had launched the first Cinderella's Closet prom dress give away event. And not 10, but 38 girls from one local high school received free prom dresses.
In addition to the prom dress give-away event, which they did on a Friday after school and all day Saturday, they also had a "getting ready" event the day of the prom where girls could come and get their hair, nails, and make up done, get dressed plus have their photos taken.
One of their biggest concerns from the start was dry cleaning, since many of the dresses needed to be cleaned. As an answer to their prayer, a local dry cleaner offered their services—free dry cleaning for any dress donated to Cinderella's Closet.
Local seamstresses offered to do free alterations and a local photographer offered to take pictures.
When they opened the doors for the inaugural event, the group had more than 300 dresses, some still with tags on them and some worth hundreds of dollars, 80 pairs of shoes, and dozens of evening purses.
By the second year, the number of volunteers grew from 15 to more than 70, and a selection of more than 500 dresses in sizes from 3 to 28. A local businessman, not even connected with the church, renovated part of his building so the group could store the dresses year-round in a climate-controlled area, which still brings tears to Dana's eyes when she thinks about it. Prior to that, Dana and her sister-in-law both had dresses hanging in every closet and spare space in their houses.
More than just a Dress
From the beginning, Dana and those involved in Cinderella's Closet always wanted it to be about more than just a dress. They wanted it to be about sharing the love of Jesus to young girls who are vulnerable to the pressures of an increasingly materialistic, hedonistic, and nihilistic society.
When the doors open, it's not a stampede to the racks, like the bridal dress mad dash at Filene's Basement stores. Instead, girls register and are assigned a volunteer "fairy godmother" whose job it is to treat her girl like a princess, to help her choose a dress, and to give her personal attention.
Once the girl finds her perfect dress and accessories, which may take hours, she's ushered into the Finishing Touch room where she can share her thoughts about her experience and listen to a gospel presentation. For many of the girls, this is their first encounter with a church outreach ministry.
For many, it's a relief to hear someone tell them it's okay not to drink or have sex or rent a motel room for a party. They can leave Cinderella's Closet armed with a defense against a world that's crass and crude. Maybe for the first time they hear that they are precious and priceless.
"By the time they get to the Finishing Touch, their hearts are so soft," says Melinda Ferguson, the leader of Working Christian Women. "We'll ask them what one thing stood out to them about the day, and for many it's the dress, but many cry and say they've never been treated so kindly before or felt so much love. So when you try to tell them about the love of Christ, they've tasted a little bit of it."
For the moms and the grandmas or aunts who come with the girls, Cinderella's Closet offers respite for them as well. Sometimes an older woman assuring the mother of a 17-year-old that things get better in a few years opens opportunities for further conversation over a cup of punch and some cookies or cake.
Far Beyond Her Dreams
for Dana Davis, Cinderella's Closet is not a dream come true—it's more than she could ever have dreamed or imagined, and she says it's only a taste of what she believes God is going to do. In addition to prom, they've also given dresses to girls for other events.
For example, a hospice social worker called the church. A woman, dying of cancer, had a daughter who planned to get married later in the year, but the woman wouldn't live that long and wanted to see her daughter get married. The social worker asked if Cinderella's Closet had any wedding dresses.
Normally they don't, but one had just come in to the church, which turned out to be a perfect fit for the dying woman's daughter.
"That can only be God!" Dana says. "There's a Scripture that says, 'God is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine' (Ephesians 3:20). He can do more than anything we can dream of, and he does that. This is so much further reaching than I ever dreamed it would be. We may never know how what we're doing will impact these girls."
She says for her, it's been a huge faith-building experience. From decorations to refreshments to clothing racks and clothes hangers, they've done it all without money, relying on God to move the hearts of people to donate goods and services—and he has.
"One of the big things, too, for the girls and their parents, is not to let them feel like they're getting charity," she says. "We want them to feel they're worthy of this. That instills hope, and not just for prom. This has become an event that has let people see that God is alive and well and he's working—and we can't stop him."
Nancy Kennedy, a Kyria regular contributor, is an author of numerous books, and a newspaper reporter and columnist for the Citrus County Chronicle in Florida.
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Kyria.com.
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