Prom dreams do come true

The Cinderella Project helps area girls find their way to prom when finances weren’t going to allow them to attend


Kayla Reyes

PRINCESS PREPARATION: The ReFresh office, the headquarters for the Cinderella Project, holds thousands of dresses for each gril to choose from. VIPS (Very Important Princesses) get to look through as many dresses as it takes for them to find the perfect one.

Kayla Reyes, Social media editor

As soon as *Olivia Smith saw herself in the dress, she knew it was the one. She loved it: the silky, cream-colored material and the way the light gleamed on the iridescent sequins lining the fabric. She looked in a mirror, and tears trickled down her face. She looked beautiful. She tried on a few more, just in case, but came back to the first one. It was perfect, and if she hadn’t received it, she wouldn’t be able to go to prom.

The Cinderella Project is an organization that donates dresses to girls who wouldn’t be able to attend prom if they hadn’t received one. Throughout the month of February, girls across the St. Louis area receive prom dresses from the Project if they can’t afford one themselves.

The Project aims to find the perfect dress for each young woman and make them feel beautiful and cared for in the process. Mrs. Shelley Thomas-Benke is in charge of the volunteers at Foster and Adoptive Care Coalition, and she has been helping run the Cinderella Project since the Coalition took it over four years ago.

According to Mrs. Thomas-Benke, nearly every girl who is helped by the Project leaves with an experience like the one Smith had.

“It is my intention that they are going to leave with a dress that, on a scale from one to 10, is a 10,” she said, smiling. “We’ve had two nine point fives and two 11’s and everybody else has been a 10, so our average is a little over a 10.”

Over 200 volunteers were involved with the Cinderella Project each year, including “fairy godmothers,” the women who help girls in their process of finding the perfect dress.

“I match them with one or two fairy godmothers who are volunteers, and they go off and they have hour-and-a-half appointments. But obviously they stay late a lot of the time,” she said, laughing and looking back to the room where a girl was still changing in and out of dresses. “So they find the dress that’s absolutely perfect for them.”

The community is a huge part of the Project helping as many girls as possible. Volunteers help with everything from dress alterations to personal fittings. One of the most

accessible ways for people to get involved is through donating dresses. Thousands of dresses were donated by 12 schools and other organizations for this year’s prom.

Hattie Ransom, a senior, organized a dress drive on behalf of the Cinderella Project. She collected 180 dresses along with the assistance of fellow senior Caitlyn Swaringim and math teacher Mrs. Dena Dauve.

Ransom grew interested in helping people with their prom experience last year. She collected money for people to pay for last year’s prom tickets, but didn’t have the opportunity to help with the Cinderella Project.

Ransom began planning her involvement in the Project in December. She organized each step of the drive and her dedication was an important part in its success.

“We made signs in the weeks leading up, and the week of the drive I would come in early in the morning and get the rack and bring it down,” Ransom said. “It [took] a week for all the collections at our school.”

Swaringim assisted Ransom throughout the process of collecting dresses. She and Ransom prepared for the drive months in advance and wanted to reach as many people as possible.

“In the morning, I helped to collect the dresses and get the word out,” Swaringim said. “I used Snapchat and Instagram and all the social media to spread the world.”

Swaringim is happy she was able to help the Cinderella Project give girls the best prom possible.

“It’s exciting knowing so many girls will get the opportunity to go to prom and have that fun night where they don’t have to worry about anything,” Swaringim said. “And [now] money’s not holding them back in this situation.”

Ransom saw the need girls had for assistance during prom season, and she had experienced it herself.

“Last year I kind of went through a little bump in the road, and my prom experience wasn’t looking like what I thought it was [going to] be like,” Ransom said. “My prom experience had changed and a lot of people want to go to prom, but it’s not even an option for them.”

Ransom saw the profound impact the Project had, both on the community and the girls it helped.

“It was really awesome that everyone in the school and a lot of people from the community came together to help them out,” Ransom said. “Knowing there’s other girls who are having the same feeling and have a really special night to remember is really cool.”

According to Ransom, Mrs. Dauve provided much of the backbone regarding Central’s involvement in the Cinderella Project.

“She was able to communicate with teachers,” Ransom said. “She was able to connect NHS so people would get service points [for donating]. Her being that support system and having more capabilities helped a lot.”

Mrs. Dauve sees Ransom and Swaringim’s impact as much greater than her own. However, their work would not have been possible without her contributions.

“My thing was just to help get the word out about what she wanted to do,” Mrs. Dauve said. “There are different procedures that we have to go through with the school, so I was just the person [who] took care of all that.”

Mrs. Dauve’s collaboration with Ransom and Swaringim allowed her to gain a sense of the impact they’re making.

“It’s pretty unbelievable that [Hattie] came up with such an incredible idea that will impact so many people,” Mrs. Dauve said. “To know that we are giving girls a prom experience that they may never have been able to do before is pretty amazing.”

Mrs. Dauve is proud of all Ransom has done, and she wants others to know young people can can have a huge effect on the world around them.

“How big her heart is and just the way that she can think about giving her gifts and talents to other people is just so inspiring,” Mrs. Dauve said. “It makes me grateful to know that there are young adults like Hattie who understand that this world is bigger than themselves. I’m just so grateful that she asked me to be a very, very small part of what she did.”

Ransom is grateful for the experience she was able to gain from working with the Cinderella Project, and she’s happy so many girls will be able to benefit from what she’s done

“I think it helps [girls] feel special and just feel confident whenever they go to their prom,” Ransom said. “Because for me, I know what it feels like to feel confident in something that I wear, or to feel beautiful. So I think it’s really important that they get the opportunity to have that. I just really love that I can help make that impact.”

For those who are interested in helping girls in need with their prom experience, there are many options available.

The Cinderella Project in particular will be accepting donations and looking for volunteers again next February.

“If someone has a donation for a prom dress, or even a bridesmaid dress, we would love their donation for the Cinderella Project,” Mrs. Thomas-Benke said. “We love prom dress donations, but also prom appropriate jewelry and shoes.”

During prom season, there will be another opportunity to make an impact on our students.

“[Hattie] had the idea that, once prom tickets get sold, we will be asking for donations of one dollar on their prom ticket, and that money that’s collected will go towards students here at our school who will need financial help to go to prom,” Mrs. Dauve said. “It would just change so many people’s lives, and there’s no better inspiration than that to me.”

*asterisks indicate a pseudonym used to protect the confidentiality of all individuals mentioned

FINISHING TOUCHES: VIPS choose from an accessory (a pair of shoes, piece of jewelry, or handbag) after selecting their prom dress. The member of the Cinderella Project do everything they can to make each girl's experience even better than they imagined.
Kayla Reyes