By Carson Gerber
---- — Elena Cadenaz has well over 100 dresses of every shape, size, color and fabric packed into her basement in Peru.
But the 18-year-old Peru High School senior isn’t a clothing hoarder or fashion aficionado. She’s just a girl who wants to make sure her fellow female classmates have the best prom of their lives.
For the last three years, senior girls from all three Miami County schools have scoured the state for used prom dresses and other formal wear to give away to girls who can’t afford a dress of their own for prom.
It’s all part of the Fairy Godmother Project of Miami County, and it’s been a big hit. In the past two years, more than 120 girls from all over north central Indiana have received a free dress who otherwise wouldn’t have had one.
“I think this is a real cool project,” said Jessica Monnot, a senior at North Miami who is leading up the outreach this year. “I know how expensive prom dresses are, but I think every girl deserves that one day where they feel like a princess. Even if they can’t afford it, they should still be able to have that experience.”
The project was originally created three years ago by Vivian Borse, a North Miami senior who came up with the idea for her senior project.
The outreach quickly caught on, and students at Peru and Maconaquah high schools jumped on board to help.
Now, senior girls at every school volunteer each year to lead up the project. They put up flyers, travel to boutiques and consignment shops across the state to drum up donations, put up photos of new dresses on Facebook and eventually help girls find their perfect prom outfit during what they call Boutique Day.
On that day, girls can bring in a dress to trade or just come and browse through the selection of hundreds of dresses. Girls can also put their name into a raffle for a chance to win hair-styling, tanning sessions and other prom-related services donated from local businesses.
“It feels really good to see a girl find the dress,” said Denise Gornto, an English teacher at North Miami High School who helps the students with the outreach. “I think that’s true no matter who you are. It’s that ‘awwww’ moment where they find the dress that makes them feel like a princess. It’s a very warm feeling.”
Monnot said helping provide that “awwww” moment to her peers was what initially convinced her to lead the Fairy Godmother Project this year.
“I fell in love with it last year when I decided to donate my dress,” she said. “It was hard to see it go, but the feeling of knowing you helped somebody made it worth it.”
During Boutique Day last year, Monnot said she helped dozens of girls find a dress who thought they would never be able to afford prom. Some of them were single, high school mothers. Others just didn’t have the money. Some came as far away as Lafayette looking for a dress.
Monnot said they don’t turn anyone away or ask any questions. Girls just have to have some way to verify they’re in high school.
“There’s no shame in coming,” she said. “Everyone is there to help you, and we’re not judging anyone.”
English teacher Gornto said it’s refreshing to see high school students from all across Miami County come together and reach out to their peers.
“It’s always really great to see the kids step up and do something for somebody else,” she said. “These girls continue to make it more — to make it bigger and better every year. They’re all hardworkers, and they just want to make other people happy.”
People can donate dresses now until Feb. 21. Drop-off locations are at North Miami and Peru high schools, and St. Vincent de Paul thrift store, 30 W. 7th St., Peru.
Monnot encouraged anyone who has an extra formal dress lying around to donate it to the project.
“If you’re cleaning out your closet, you may have a dress you haven’t used forever, and you could help a girl make a wonderful memory and have a dream prom,” she said.
Boutique Day will be held from 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday, March 2, at St. Charles Borromeo School, 80 W. 5th St., Peru. Girls should bring a pair of heels for trying on dresses, and bring no more than one female guest. Children are not allowed.
Monnot said businesses can help by donating services like hair-styling, tanning, dinner, or anything else that would help defray the cost of prom for girls in difficult circumstances.
Gornto said she’s always amazed at how many girls show up and take advantage of the Fairy Godmother Project of Miami County. By the end of Boutique Day this year, she said she hopes all the dresses have gone to girls ready for a great night at prom.
“With each year, we’ve helped a few more girls as the word has gotten out and people start to expect this,” she said. “As long as the need is here, and we have girls willing to step up to the plate, we’ll continue to be here.”
Carson Gerber can be reached at 765-854-6739, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @carsongerber1.