Maria Ocegueda is going through a rack of dresses trying to find the perfect prom dress. Maria and other girls from Polytechnic High School in Fort Worth, Texas, are looking for their dresses at a church fellowship hall. That’s where Cindy Olivera is offering free prom dresses to juniors and seniors from low income families. She calls her grassroots program “Prom Queen FAD.” (FAD stands for For A Day.)
Cindy, an alum of Polytech, was a senior at Texas Wesleyan University when she started her program in 2007. “I just wanted to give back by helping girls who can’t afford new prom dresses,” she says. “I remember my prom dress. I bought it for 20 dollars because I didn’t have much money.”
Cindy, a marketing coordinator started Prom Queen FAD as a way of combing her passion for education and community service. As a senior in college, she asked her sorority sisters at Sigma Kappa Lambda to help with donations of dresses that could be worn to the prom. Since then friends, family members, and even strangers have donated to the project.
This year, 150 dresses were donated to Cindy’s project. Some dresses are new, others are slightly used. The donations didn’t stop with the dresses; Cindy also got donated handbags, costume jewelry, shoes, even gift cards for the girls.
PROM PROGRAM MAKES DREAMS COME TRUE
Maria Ocegueda comes from a family of six. She says her father mows lawns for a living and makes little money. “My dad can barely pay the bills. I knew I couldn’t ask for a new dress,” says the 18-year-old. Getting a free prom dress not only helps me, but also other girls who can’t afford to pay.”
Maria’s reality, like that of other program participants, is far different from the one portrayed in a recent Visa prom study, which showed that American families will spend more than $1,000 on prom on average, despite a still sluggish economy. That cost of $1,078—and almost twice that in the Northeast—is a 33.6% increase over the $807 spent in 2011. The study revealed that families with less income tend to spend the most, with those making less than $20,000 a year spending an average of $1,200 and those earning between $20,000 and $29,999 spending of $2,635. By comparison, those making more than $75,000 a year planned to spend an average of $842.
“I know my expenses for prom in 2003 was about $100. I’m not surprised that it has increased to $1,000,” says Cindy. “This report reaffirms that prom is definitely an important celebration for seniors and that its important for the ladies to feel like a thousand bucks even though the reality is that not everyone can afford it and that’s where I come in.”
On this day, Maria and five other teenage girls from Polytechnic High school race through the fellowship hall, grabbing dresses to try on. One by one, the girls come out and model their potential prom dresses. Each one feels confident and beautiful. As Cindy watches them she feels like a proud mother.
“I can’t even express what I feel,” Cindy says. “Just knowing that this is a big day for them. It’s a celebration, because it’s their prom, but some are also graduating.” Like most school districts in the country, Fort Worth also has its challenges with a dropout problem among Latino teens.
LEAVING WITH A DRESS AND MUCH MORE
“What if something bad happens, what are you going to do?” Camille McDermott asks the teenage girls who sit around a table listening to her. McDermott is a Dallas Police Officer; she’s there to give the girls the safety tips they’ll need for prom night.
Officer McDermott, who happens to be Cindy’s best friend, rattles off a list: “Make sure you have a charged cellphone, make sure you know where you’re at, write it down in your purse somewhere. Keep an eye on your purse and drinks.”
Though Cindy gives away free prom dresses, she also feels it’s a good time to educate and encourage the girls who participate. “Our event focuses on three things: drug and alcohol abuse awareness, safety on prom night and the importance of a college education.”
SMALL IDEA EQUALS BIG ACCOMPLISHMENT
Since starting Prom Queen FAD, Cindy has made it possible for 70 girls to attend their proms in style and with confidence. She hopes someday to expand her project to other high schools in Fort Worth, Texas, and to turn her project into a non-profit organization.
On this day, all six girls have found the perfect prom dress. Maria found a long brown evening gown for her prom and a black silky dress for her graduation party. She also found one more thing—the confidence she needed to make her last year in high school special. She says Cindy gave her a gift she will never forget: “I feel like a princess. I feel like people care, and I appreciate that.”
START YOUR OWN PROM DRESS PROJECT
Is there a need to help teenage girls get a prom dress in your community? Cindy believes you need a goal, determination and persistence to launch a grassroots projects like hers. She recommends the following tips to start your own program at a high school near you:
- Contact local high school counselors and see if there is a need.
- Contact local church and civic groups to see if they can help.
- Find volunteers through your contacts including those on your social networks.
- Find donations by spreading the word that there is a need.
- Contact local media; everyone needs a story before prom.
- Find a location by asking your local church or even the high school for space.
- Start small and only do what you can handle.
Cindy will pack away any dresses and donations that were not used this year for next year. With a big smile she says “Giving back feels good. If we can change a life with a prom dress then it is all worth it.”
Rebecca Aguilar is an multiple Emmy award winning reporter based in Dallas, Texas.