THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Power of Prom Dresses

If we were to play a little free association, and you asked me to say the first thing that "December" brings to mind, I probably wouldn't say Christmas, yuletide greetings, or chestnuts roasting by an open fire. My brain, at least since 2007, thinks "prom."

Every year in December, seventeen.com launches prom content -- quizzes, videos, a huge Dress Finder -- because SeventeenPROM and TeenPROM magazines hit newsstands the day after Christmas. Winter break is prime time for planning the perfect prom outfit, and Google searches for "prom dresses" climb.

If you consider proms to be too extravagant and debaucherous these days (revealing dresses, underage drinking, hooking up), then 10 bucks says I can change your mind. Because I believe in the power of teen girls, and if you can inspire her to rock the prom, you can inspire her to rock the world.

It all starts with donated dresses. As editor of DonateMyDress.org for Hearst Digital Media, I manage a network of nearly 100 dress drives nationwide, where young women can go to donate or receive free dresses. When we started DonateMyDress.org in April 2008, I thought it would just be a static directory of dress drives. I was wrong. Today, DonateMyDress.org is one of the most dynamic projects I work on, a year-long conversation with chapter leaders, teenagers in need, interested donors, and corporate supporters.

What I've learned is that for every donated dress, there is so much potential hidden in the confidence it gives the recipient and the joy it gives the donor. This can be hard to notice individually, but when I look at the big picture nationally, I begin to notice the impact.

  1. Girls who receive donated dresses are so grateful, they later pay it forward to keep the giving circle going.
  2. A girl who received a donated dress from The Fairy Godmother Project of Houston never forgot the good deed. She wrote them, "Now that I have finished college and am a successful businesswoman, I have seized the opportunity to return the love and acceptance that this organization provided me." Another girl who accepted a dress from Cinderella's Closet for her junior prom pledged that she would donate the senior prom dress she was saving up for to another girl afterward.

  • Dress distribution events build an audience for empowerment.
  • Dress recipients often come from struggling families and don't receive the most positive messages. So when they come to receive a dress, many chapters host fun workshops to teach them life skills, dream building, and wellness. Fashion opens a back door into great conversations about their futures.

  • Young women who can't find a dress drop-off center near them become inspired to start one, fostering community leaders.
  • In January, I'm publishing a guide on how to start dress drives on DonateMyDress.org, because I receive so many e-mails asking for tips. Those who don't have a dress chapter in their city can always donate by mail, but they want to do more. They want to give girls in their community a place to find dresses. DonateMyDress.org is encouraging leadership among women who always wanted to do good, but just didn't know where to begin.

  • When you discover what a big impact something as small as donating a dress has, you want to flex your do-good muscles even more.
  • If simply giving a girl a dress can bring her so much confidence on one night, what happens if we support her education? What if you helped an inner city girl get a scholarship to college, or helped a girl attend school in parts of the world where education is not public and free? She gains the skills to solve problems, articulate opinions, understand worldviews.

    If high school girls can rally their friends to donate dresses, what if we show them that in college, they can collect as little as $5 from each person in their dorm and together sponsor a girl's education in Africa for a year? For the She's the First campaign, which I created independently of Hearst, we just tested this idea with Welsh Family Hall at the University of Notre Dame. The residents made it possible for Viola, an 11-year-old girl born and raised during the Liberian civil war, to finish K2 this year. It's a late start for an 11-year-old, but better than none at all.

    Now, that's the true beauty of dress donation: Whether you give or you get, you discover dresses are just the beginning. Because once you rock the prom, you can rock the world.

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