"It's big and poofy and I love it!"
As high school senior, Jordan Paul, swished and twirled in her yellow puff of a prom dress, she had a "Maria moment." Just like the lead character in the film "West Side Story," Jordan could relate to "I feel pretty, oh so pretty…such a pretty face, such a pretty dress, such a pretty smile, such a pretty me!"
Several United Methodist churches want to ensure that every girl has the opportunity to promenade into a ballroom or high school gymnasium this spring feeling like a prom queen. No crowns or sashes are necessary—just the knowledge that someone cares about you.
Throughout the year, Woods Chapel United Methodist Church in Lee's Summit, Missouri, along with new partner, Central United Methodist Church in Kansas City, collects thousands of donated new and almost-new prom dresses. On different dates, the two churches give away the to-die-for gowns—for FREE. No income verification. No explanations. No one is turned away.
"We never know why a girl needs a dress—maybe she has special needs, financial challenges or shame issues," says Laura Wesche, who along with Carla Kath founded and coordinates the Blessed Dress ministry at Central United Methodist Church.
Prom memories of a different sort
In the years she has coordinated the Prom Boutique at Woods Chapel United Methodist Church, Fern Truschke Stuart has had her heart warmed by the ways lives have been touched by this ministry.
- The dad who got tears in his eyes when he saw his daughter in her dress. He said, "We drove two hours to see this moment. Thank you."
- The mom in the wheelchair who got special permission from hospice to come see her daughter try on dresses.
- The teary-eyed mom whose two daughters found dresses at our boutique. The mother said they never had to worry about money until her husband was injured on the job. There was no money for "extras" like prom dresses.
- A young man who received a tuxedo donated by a friend of one of our volunteers. Not only was it the exact size, but all the accessories to go with it were included.
- The young lady who was so thrilled with her new dress and wanted to make a donation. All she had was 41 cents, but she gave it to us!
- The social worker who said, "It's so much more than a dress; it's Christ's love shown through your generous spirits. The seeds you planted through your service will make an eternal difference in some lives!"
To spread these joyous moments to other churches, Fern Truschke Stuart has written a handbook to help similar ministries get their start. Learn more here.
"We try to alleviate any negative emotions like, 'I don't have enough,' and 'I'm not good enough.' All they need to know is that it's not the dress that makes them beautiful. They are the beautiful one."
Churches caught prom fever
Prom Boutique at Woods Chapel United Methodist Church and Blessed Dress share 4,500 fancy dresses, the more sparkles the better, in colors cranberry to nude, styles strapless to sweetheart, and sizes 0 to 32. Both ministries are up to their earrings in chiffon, sequins and lace. No one has to go home without a dress.
"So many girls walk in with shoulders hung, thinking, 'I'm never going to find anything here—it's a church with free dresses,'" Wesche says. "But when they see the dresses and spend an hour or two going through them, texting pictures to friends and modeling them for moms, dads and boyfriends, prom takes on a new excitement."
Zoom, Zoom, Zoom!
Fern Truschke Stuart, Prom Boutique coordinator since 2005, is a prom fashion veteran. Although she admits she is a no frills and no fru-fru type, she does live vicariously through her shoppers.
"Anytime you can make somebody happy by doing something simple like giving them a way to feel good about themselves is 'awesome,' as our girls would say."
Hours before the doors open at Prom Boutique, the line begins to build. When the shoppers walk into the church's worship center, the giggling begins.
"When they see 18 racks of prom dresses, their eyes light up and off they go…zoom, zoom, zoom!" Truschke Stuart says. "Some find what they're looking for in just a few minutes, but others are here all afternoon. One girl must have paraded out wearing 12 different dresses to show her dad."
'We can't afford it'
Prettifying for prom is the dream of many young girls, but outward beauty often comes at a high cost.
Prom specialists predict that girls attending prom in the U.S. in 2015 will spend on average $530; the boys $250. At those prices some families are forced to shatter their teenager's dream by saying, "We can't afford it."
The Rev. Michael Williams, senior pastor at West End United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, sees prom attire not as a fashion issue, but as a justice issue.
"In the Hebrew Bible," Williams says, "justice means that everybody, including orphans, widows, immigrants and the poor, can get what they need to have a quality life."
"One thing people in high school need is the ability to fit in with their peers," the pastor continues. "Not being excluded from the prom experience is a basic, but important form of justice—everybody gets what they need."
A little girl's big girl dream
"I feel like a princess," were the first words out of Charysma Smoot's mouth when she showed off her pearl-decked pink Cinderella-style dress. Since middle school, she's dreamed of going to her senior prom. This year's dance theme is appropriately, "Golden Memories."
"I really have to watch my money if I want to go to college." Smoot said. "I can't afford a $200 dress, but I found a beautiful one here."
The dress doesn't make the girl
Both Wesche and Truschke Stuart's volunteers are very careful with the reassurance they give each girl. For them, it's not about the dress, but the person who wears it.
"I know girls in adolescence measure their beauty and worth in superficial ways," Wesche says.
"We never tell them we'll help them find a dress that will make them look skinny. We talk about how the dress compliments their hair, that their smile is beautiful and that the dress will be fun to dance in. Our message is, 'You're perfect. Let's find a dress that is just as fabulous as you.'"
Not a shopping experience, but a spiritual experience
The hundreds of volunteers who alter dresses, steam clean them, work as a personal shoppers, rescue remnants to recycle and cheerlead with ooh's and ahh's, also do something else. They touch and pray over each dress.
For both Prom Boutique and Blessed Dress, it's about more than a dress. It's about making beautiful, lifelong memories. It's about experiencing a "God moment." It's about beauty within.
"Over a woman's life when she looks back and remembers her prom maybe she'll think about the church that made her feel beautiful," Wesche says, "the people who didn't question her, judge her, or make her feel unworthy. Maybe she'll remember, 'They just accepted me as I am.' And maybe at some point when she's ready, she'll be open to finding a church of her own."
If you would like to begin a prom dress ministry in your church, Fern Truschke Stuart of Prom Boutique has written a handbook to help you get started. Learn more here.
This story was first published on March 20, 2015.