Barb Simpson, who founded a program in Union City that gives donated prom dresses to high school girls free of charge, watched a girl named Sarah stare into the mirror at her reflection with tears brimming in her eyes.
Sarah had traveled from New York for the appointment. A plus-sized girl, she had struggled to find a flattering prom dress. That is, until she tried on that red dress.
“She said it made her feel like Cinderella,” said Simpson.
Sarah’s mother, with whom she communicated via text message, had one reservation about the dress. The neckline was too revealing.
So Simpson located a brooch she had inherited from her mother and quickly pinned the dress. Sarah left with the dress and the brooch, a little reminder of her experience trying on prom dresses and of Simpson’s generosity.
In late February, Simpson created a Facebook group called, “Prom Night: ‘Helping you make your dreams come true.’” Within a couple weeks, she had received 30 donated prom dresses.
The idea was inspired by similar past efforts by Northwest Family Services and a local Baptist church, Simpson said. With these agencies, Simpson worked to revive the project.
A stay-at-home mother of seven, Simpson originally accepted dress donations at her house. When she ran out of room, she relocated the project to Daszy Handmade Homemade, an Union City boutique. In mid-April, the sheer number of dresses caused Simpson to move once again, this time to the Congdon Hotel.
At that time, she had received 1,000 donated dresses, Simpson said.
“I’m amazed in response,” said Simpson. “Not only in donations but in girls who weren’t worried about the label on the tag in their dress.”
As quickly as the dresses came in, they left in the hands of girls from all over northwestern Pennsylvania and western New York. Simpson said she currently has between 200 and 300 dresses in stock.
Advertisements for the project went up on Northwest Family Services’ website and Craigslist, in addition to the Facebook page. Simpson said the project has also gained traction through word of mouth referrals.
The prom dresses come in “all colors, shapes and sizes,” says Simpson. She also accepts shoes, purses and costume jewelry. A local Avon vendor donated perfume and makeup samples for participating girls.
After the request of one teary-eyed high school boy, the operation has grown to include suits and tuxedos.
“We called [the boy's] tux the ‘Frankenstein tux,’” said Simpson. “I drove all around Erie trying to piece together that suit.”
The goals of the prom dress project are sharing and saving.
“We’ve had so many girls who have been to the point of tears, and so many moms and dads who didn’t have to choose to buy a dress or pay an electric bill,” said Simpson.
Simpson believes there is a great need for her prom dress project, but she also says she does it for “selfish” reasons.
“Every time I see a girl get a new dress it makes me so happy,” said Simpson. “It’s like playing the fairy godmother.”
Drop dress donations it off at the Congdon Hotel, located at 42 N. Main St. in Union City.
If you’re looking for a dress, visit the Congdon Hotel from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Monday through Friday and ask for Deborah Lyons or call Simpson at (814) 881-7168.
Photo courtesy of the “Prom Night: ‘Helping you make your dreams come true’” Facebook page