Free gowns make prom a reality

Project Prom March 18, 19

 

By Deb Schreiner
Contributing Writer

Prom isn’t just a school dance; it’s a major financial investment. By the time a girl pays for the gown, shoes, purse, jewelry, hair styling, nails, and makeup, the entire ensemble could easily exceed a thousand dollars.
That’s simply not an option for low-income families.

Gowns from Rubi Jubi: A small sampling of brand new gowns donated by Rubi Jubi, Maple Grove. (Photo byDeb Schreiner)
Gowns from Rubi Jubi: A small sampling of brand new gowns donated by Rubi Jubi, Maple Grove. (Photo by Deb Schreiner)

Ten years ago, Jeni Asaba decided to make prom possible for high school girls from low-income homes. She worked at Bronx Community College in New York. The first year she and her volunteers collected about 200 gowns. “We had whole senior classes of high school girls lined up in the hallway.”
Project Prom was born.
When Asaba moved to Minnesota in 2009, she brought it with her. She remembers a girl named Jenny, whose eyes filled with tears as she stared at herself in the mirror, wearing a brand new $250 gown. “I asked, ‘Why are you crying?’
‘YOU DESERVE IT’
She said, ‘I can’t take this. It’s too much.’ She couldn’t fathom getting something for free that was worth $250. I said, ‘You deserve it.’ She gave me the biggest hug.”
There are no income requirements to be eligible for a dress. “Any girl who has a need is definitely welcome. I don’t want to try to define what that need is for somebody else,” Asaba said.
Project Prom provides dresses for an average of 100 to 150 high school girls at the annual event, although the number grows every year. “They will have around a thousand dresses to pick from of all colors, styles, and sizes,” Asaba said. She would love to find a dry cleaner who would be interested in donating their services.
“We put out only the best dresses, so they won’t find any with stains on them,” Asaba said. After a girl selects her dress, volunteers steam it and put it in a dress bag.

Rubi Jubi Store Manager Nancy Carbajal, left, and Project Prom Founder Jeni Asaba show off another new dress donated by Rubi Jubi at this year’s Project Prom event.  The selection includes about one thousand dresses collected from five donation sites throughout the Twin Cities. (Photo byDeb Schreiner)
Rubi Jubi Store Manager Nancy Carbajal, left, and Project Prom Founder Jeni Asaba show off another new dress donated by Rubi Jubi at this year’s Project Prom event. The selection includes about one thousand dresses collected from five donation sites throughout the Twin Cities. (Photo byDeb Schreiner)

Even brand new dresses are donated. Nancy Carbajal, Store Manager at Rubi Jubi in Maple Grove, said the store is donating about 30 brand new gowns that were never sold. “We have many styles from last season that we didn’t carry out this year because we picked up so many new styles.”
The average prom dress costs from $300 to $400. “Every year it gets a little bit more because designers take runway-inspired looks and then translate them to prom. We are seeing a lot more details and high quality materials,” said Carbajal.
Rubi Jubi became involved with Project Prom for the first time this year. The store is one of five locations across the Twin Cities that collected donated dresses. Carbajal said customers often ask if the store will repurchase gowns. This year, customers that donate a dress will have their name entered into a drawing for a $25 gift card.
Asaba is excited about the new venue at The Shoppes at Arbor Lakes in Maple Grove. “It is a fabulous location. It recreates the retail experience the best we possibly can.” Volunteers direct girls to dressing rooms once they have selected gowns to try on. Others help them find different sizes and styles.
Asaba maintains a constant inventory of 500 dresses to ensure that girls will always have plenty to choose from. “It takes a community to pull it off,” she said. “It wouldn’t happen if people didn’t donate.”

200 GOWNS
Last year the donation site at Unity Hospital collected close to 200 gowns. Allina Health Pharmacy in Plymouth gathered more than 50 dresses this year. The Shoppes at Arbor Lakes told Asaba they’ve received a lot of donated dresses as well.
Getting the word out about Prom Project is Asaba’s biggest challenge. Each event in the last two years drew girls from more than 30 high schools, including Staples, Minnesota. She reached out to about 45 high schools this year. “I send out all of the information to high school guidance counselors.”
Prom Project will be at the empty store next to White House Black Market at Space B4, 12289 Elm Creek Boulevard at The Shoppes of Arbor Lakes March 18 and 19. The hours are Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Girls may reserve their time slot at www.projectprom.us.
Asaba credits her board of three women and the many volunteers who donate their time for making Project Prom possible. “I can’t pull it off by myself,” Asaba said. “It’s an amazing group of women.”
Last October, Project Prom acquired nonprofit status, allowing donations to be tax deductible. “I was very excited about that,” Asaba said. “People have always wanted to donate.”
The most memorable dress she’s collected in her 10 years of operation was donated last year to Unity Hospital. It’s a green and white dress, with a tag on it that says, ‘This dress was worn in 1956. The wearer had so much fun. I hope you do, too.’ Asaba said many girls have tried it on, and think it’s adorable. “The waist is 24 inches. It’s super cute, but no one has been quite that small.”
Could you be the one? Whatever your taste, Asaba urges girls to check out this weekend’s Project Prom event. “You can’t lose. It’s a really fun experience. You’ll find gorgeous, unique gowns that you may not find anywhere else. Get a beautiful gown for free. There’s nothing better.”