Nurturing Success and Ownership, One Dress at a Time
Ali was completely unprepared for the interest generated on Facebook. An overwhelming amount of dresses, shoes and other such in-kind donations were pouring in. The sheer volume of messages necessitated the need for a separate Facebook page.
“What should we call it?” Ali asked her husband. He answered with, “Ali’s Prom Project.” The name stuck.
That first year Ali collected donations at a local business, stored the dresses in a donated storage room, and did her first spring pop-up at the Tacoma Police Department. Local foster teens that Ali had been in contact with over Facebook showed up to try on dresses, shoes and accessories in preparation for their prom. Many had never even been able to pamper themselves in preparation for a school dance before, much less wear a beautiful dress.
But it wasn’t until the Kiro 7 and the News Tribune covered the project that things really got out of hand.
Before, there were donations coming in from all over the community. Now they’re being mailed to Ali from all over. What was originally a one-time thing was now gearing up to become an annual event. Foster kids could continue to have access to a much taken for granted milestone. Ali’s Prom Project is about more than just getting gussied up for a dance—it’s about communicating worth. But there were some bumps in the road as Ali learned just what her project could achieve. After the advertised pop-up, Ali was getting even more messages from teens and families. She just wasn’t ready for all of it. Against her better judgement, she accepted one request. She got the proper sizes from the storage shed and met the student for a fitting. That’s when she quickly realized that no one knows their dress size. None of the dresses she picked out fit. That was when Ali set out to open a permanent location.
When foster kids come into the Prom Project, oftentimes they shuffle in without making eye contact. Head bowed, shoulders folded inward, they’re shown dresses with the price tags intentionally left on and allowed to try on as many as they would like until they find the one that’s “just right.” By the time they leave, they’re holding themselves a bit higher. Such a simple thing: having access to a pretty dress. It communicates excess, success and ownership. Foster teens practice what has been true all along: They’re worth it.
Why foster kids specifically? Ali and her husband were foster parents for 10 years. At a foster parent meeting, one parent had decided to forgo paying bills so that her four foster teens could attend the prom.
“It was then that something in my mind just clicked. I had a few formal dresses in my closet that I had maybe worn once. Why not see if some of the girls might want to wear them?” recalls Ali. She reached out to her local community for donations and opened her home closet for fittings. It was then that she discovered the overwhelming amount of interest and need, which led to the culmination of Ali’s Prom Project and its current growth.
Today the project has achieved federal 501(c)(3) nonprofit status; all donations are tax deductible. The project can also apply for grants. They have opened an official boutique. It’s not open to the public but laid out as if it was. The back room is full of hundreds of dresses in a variety of sizes and five dressing rooms. The waiting room is newly carpeted, with a couch, mirrors, shoes and a beautiful array of accessories. Every girl or boy who wants a dress is assigned a volunteer who acts as their personal stylist while they shop. From the time they walk in to the time they leave, each teen is shown personal attention and care.
In a three-year span the project has served hundreds of girls, and the occasional boy, throughout the community in need of resources for the infamous prom. Due to the amount of donations, Ali’s Prom Project opened their boutique to all low-income teens across Pierce county. The project is gearing up for quite the prom season!
This increase in donations and service has also required that the project become more creative with their resources. For instance, most of the in-kind donations are dresses. Which makes sense. Lots of dresses, but no shoes. Shoes! Any girl will tell you that it’s the shoes that make the dress. What’s a ball without a glass slipper?
Ali’s Prom Project resourcefully fundraises to buy items not donated, such as shoes, accessories and plus-size dresses. On one such fundraiser the project collects textiles (all textiles) to give to Value Village. They are then paid 25 cents per pound. If the textiles are not sold through the thrift shop, they are reused and recycled. This year the project is holding a 21 and older Great Gatsby Gala, with food, dancing, auction and drinks. Tickets can be bought at AlisPromProject.org under “Events.” It’s advertised as a “Prom Take 2” event; perfect for those who want to give that prom thing another go. The event, which was scheduled to take place April 25, has been postponed and will now take place May 30—and will be pushed out to an even later date if necessary.
With the current world-wide health concerns, you can follow Ali's Prom Project on Facebook or at AlisPromProject.org for up-to-date information.
“Some schools have canceled (prom) all together and others have not yet announced a decision,” says Ali. “We have canceled all appointments for April and will be reevaluating as the time gets closer and see where the status of the state is as time goes on.”
The dresses will all remain at the boutique so Ali and her team are ready for students whenever the next big dance may be. “In the meantime, we are working with schools and families to provide essential items (food, toilet paper, baby wipes, soap, etc.) to families that have transportation barriers keeping them from getting to the pick-up sites.”