Metro, News

Providence Princess Prom donates dresses

Dress drive organized by Providence Teacher’s Union, provides dresses, shoes to 200 students

Metro Editor
Monday, April 8, 2019

Local Providence public school students gathered at the 15th annual Providence Princess event, where over 200 students took home dresses.

Mary Breen, a senior at Classical High School, exited the dressing room and twirled, gliding in a long white prom dress with blue and silver stones and a delicate flower print curling up the right side of the skirt.

Although she hadn’t been sure this was the right one when she picked it off the rack, she was convinced when she left the dressing room — to a crowd oohing and aahing at her pick.

“You look like a goddess in that dress,” a girl waiting in line for the dressing room told Breen.

“Oh my god. Just look at that. That is stunning,” said Kathy McDonough, a teacher at Nathanael Greene Middle School and secretary of the Providence Teacher’s Union, telling the crowd to give a thumbs up if they agreed — the crowd cheered.

This was the scene at Providence Princess prom dress giveaway — an annual affair led by the Providence Teachers’ Union to outfit hundreds of Providence Public School students in free prom dresses, shoes and accessories, from earrings to necklaces to bracelets. This Saturday at the 15th annual Providence Princess, over 200 students took home dresses.

The event has grown dramatically over the last decade and a half, said Debbie Pilkington, a member of the PTU who began running the prom dress giveaway 15 years ago. Pilkington changed the structure of Providence Princess; instead of remaining invitation-only, the operation is now open to all students in Providence. The tactic has proven successful, she added, attracting more and more students every year.

PTU members, who help put on the event, saw that prom could be cost-prohibitive and felt they should find a way to make it more accessible, said PTU President Maribeth Calabro.

“The prices of prom gowns and accessories (are) excessive, and we think that every person that goes to prom should have the opportunity to go without a financial burden,” Calabro said. “We figured it’s important that they should look their very best and feel like they’re the best-looking person in the room, and not have to worry about not being able to go because they can’t afford something.”

Several students echoed her statement, noting that it was difficult to find a dress for less than $100. Particularly with post-graduate plans looming for seniors, investing in an expensive gown isn’t always the most feasible option.

“College is on the way, and I don’t have all that money to buy a dress just for one night, and then not use it again,” said Jeimmy Alonzo, a student at Providence Career and Technical Academy.

Providence Princess provides a solution for that — a popular one. The 9 a.m. open time drew a line of about 75 to 100 students outside the PTU building, McDonough said.

The event transforms the low-slung building into a virtual department store for one day in spring. One massive room holds hundreds of dresses — Pilkington lost count of how many — in every possible color, shape and size. There’s a dark navy blue piece, a slinky black one with a low back and gowns in shades like pastel green, light teal and hot pink.

“I didn’t expect to walk in and see so many dresses all around,” said Nikita Toe, a senior at Providence Career and Technical Academy.

Pilkington builds the collection of dresses any way she can, featuring both new and donated dresses. The PTU also hosts a district-wide teacher dress-down day where teachers can donate a minimum of $3 to Providence Princess to wear casual clothes to work on that day. This can garner individual donations of up to $100, Calabro said. Providence College also hosted a dress drive, which brought in 158 dresses. Finally, Pilkington herself makes a trip to the garment district in Manhattan to buy dresses at wholesale price.

“We have enough gowns that we can outfit anyone from a size 0 to 36,” Pilkington said. “Girls come in all sizes and shapes, as do boys, so we make sure we can accommodate everyone.”

Though the event is mostly attended by girls, they had six boys come in last year, Pilkington said, adding “we were able to outfit all six of them. Including shoes.”

For Pilkington, the event is an opportunity to experience something she never did: dress shopping with a daughter.

“I don’t have any daughters, so I live vicariously through others,” she said. “I get to dress a lot of girls every year.”

After students pick out dresses, it’s onto the accessories section just down the hall, where rhinestone bracelets and bangles abound, and two long tables display glittery silver and gold shoes.

The accessories section is Calabro’s terrain, as she sold jewelry for about twenty years before she became a teacher.

To a prospective prom-goer deciding between potentially precarious high heels, she reminds them: “Remember, you’re dancing and you’re walking.”

“This was a district-wide, Providence Teacher’s Union effort,” Calabro said. “It’s typically a year-round event from planning and preparation to fundraising. We have taken this event from something very small to something very big.”

“I loved my prom, I had a great time at prom and I think everybody should have that opportunity,” she added.

Meanwhile, after deciding on the white dress, Breen had moved onto heels.

“Blue shoes would be a lot, right?” she said, looking across her options. “I was thinking a silver, or a white.”

She’d come to Providence Princess expecting to support the event, alongside a group of friends who had also planned to do so — but “I found this dress, and I love it,” she said.

For Breen and other seniors in Providence public schools, prom is an important, exciting time to celebrate their last year of high school with friends. At Toe’s school, other dances are held throughout the year, but prom is the most important.

“The prom is like the one event,” Toe said. “It’s the last year before high school ends, so everyone wants to go. A lot of seniors go to prom.”

“It’s just the last time I see my friends and we’re all going to hang out together before we go our separate ways,” Breen said.

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