It all comes down to the dress. Aside from a woman’s wedding (and arguably her funeral), no occasion demands more physical primping and pampering than the ominous high school formal.
On average, a girl will scour department store dress racks for weeks in search of the perfect gown compared to only a few days coordinating her accessories, namely a doting gentleman in a matching tuxedo. This yearly ritual not only honors a rite of passage for young girls turned women; the formal also provides one of only a few opportunities for young girls to practice important social skills needed for successful interactions in the mature world.
Unfortunately for too many city youth, participating in this engagement comes at a steep price. Major department stores and specialty boutiques sell formal dresses for $150 to $500 apiece, according to one department store representative. Considering fittings, consultations, and any necessary alterations, the finished dress may actually cost a girl and her family closer to $800 in total – a very steep expense, especially in this crippled financial environment.
“I definitely saw the need, particularly in our community, and also an opportunity to provide a service to our youth,” says Tiana Hall, founder and CEO of the Diamonds & Pearls Project. “I started this organization to enable young girls preparing to go to these dances [to have] access to beautiful dresses without having to spend a fortune.”
The Diamonds & Pearls Project is a minority-operated, nonprofit initiative headed by Hall and her dedicated staff of six female committee members aiming to pair local teen girls with either new or gently used formal dresses for their high school dances, formals and proms. And all free of charge.
During two Saturdays a year (March 6 and March 20), girls from Minneapolis and the surrounding Northwest suburbs are invited to receive beautiful gowns (accessories included). They are further encouraged to take advantage of an all-inclusive primping experience: a team of beauty consultants, personal shoppers, dress tailors, and professional photographers (offering to shoot free senior pictures) that the Diamonds & Pearls Project provides on the days of the two giveaways – all for free as well.
The organization makes this possible by charitable donations from their partnering companies, but largely through the cooperation of good-willed private citizens interested in recycling their own goods and/or contributing other resources like volunteer hours and monetary gifts.
“We’re just a group of young people giving back to young people,” Hall says, “who have all seen the need firsthand in the work that we do every day alongside our youth.” Hall and all of the other six committee women work in the public sector. Hall herself works on behalf of homeless teens as a caseworker in South Minneapolis and is aware of the disparities within urban communities.
“Before it was hard, but especially now, during this economic downturn, it’s even more difficult for these teens to afford all the trappings these formal events require,” says Hall. In the age of green energy and environmental awareness, recycling dresses not only affords a girl a cherished coming-of-age experience, but this alternative is a sensible way to revitalize perfectly suitable formalwear for teens in financially tough situations.
“Everyone we’ve approached for donations has been very receptive,” Hall says. “Of course, we’re all feeling the pinch, so money is a huge barrier right now, but we’ve come a long way from where we started last April.”
Through the Diamonds & Pearls Project’s previous dress drives, they’ve collected around 90 gowns complete with accessories and purses. Next Saturday, February 6, is the last seasonal dress drive, when they expect to receive even more donations enabling them to service at least 100 youth by the time the March giveaways come around.
“We’ll take any contribution, but there’s a particular need now for petite and plus-size [size 12 and up] dresses,” Hall says. “Money is always useful, and we’re looking for more professional cleaners and steamers to donate equipment or volunteer their time during the days of the giveaways, but we’ll accept most help of any kind.”
Teen girls from Minneapolis and the surrounding Northwest suburbs must be juniors and seniors in high school and accompanied by an adult if under the age of 18. Proof of enrollment is required at the door, so come with a valid 2009-2010 school ID. The dresses are distributed on a first-come-first-served basis, so get there early. Doors open at 10 am at the Zanewood Recreation Center in Brooklyn Park on Saturday, March 6, and at the Heritage Park Community Room in Minneapolis on March 20.
Dresses and other donations can be dropped off at two locations: Nava’s Driving School in Brooklyn Park and Lights Camera Action Salon in Minneapolis this Saturday, February 6. To schedule arrangements outside of these dates/times, or for more information and details, visit the Diamonds & Pearls Project website, www.thediamondsandpearlsproject.org, email them at firstname.lastname@example.org, or write The Diamonds & Pearls Project, PO Box 290047, Brooklyn Center, MN 55429.
Caroline Joseph welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.