“To a teenage girl, prom is almost like a rite of passage,” says Alfred State student Olivia Ciesla. “Picking out a dress, finding a date, and getting your hair done is part of that prom experience.” But for many underprivileged young girls and their families in Allegany County, a formal event that can cost upwards of $800 is just too far out of reach. “I was unable to afford a dress for my own senior prom,” Olivia says. “I know the feeling of going to a store and not being able to leave with a dress because it just costs too much.”
Determined to make a difference in the lives of other young girls, Olivia joined Project Prom Dress—an organization dedicated to collecting prom dresses, accessories, and cash donations for underprivileged teenage girls. A result of combined efforts from both Alfred State’s Emerging Pioneers Leadership Program and the Delta Chi Omega sorority, the group hosts two dress drives per academic year in fall and spring and now boasts its own Leadership Suite in the Student Leadership Center on campus.
“Though the idea is not an original one—many similar groups are found throughout the U.S.—such a movement could not have come at a more ideal time,” says Alyshia M. Zurlick, assistant director of the Student Leadership Center at Alfred State. “Now more than ever in today’s precarious economy, people are simply unable to drop $100 or more on a dress that will only be worn once. But Allegany and surrounding county’s girls don’t have to worry about that this year.”
Last year Project Prom Dress held its first dress drive at Alfred State. There were more than 750 dresses and 50 brand-new pairs of shoes donated. The group also raised more than $20,000 in dresses donated from consignment shops in Canisteo and Horseheads. And this fall they took their dresses on the road to a school whose families could not afford to travel to Alfred for the event.
Of course, Olivia and the other volunteers aren’t stopping at dresses. Currently they are working on sponsoring a prom for a local high school that cannot obtain the funding to host one for its junior and senior classes. “We want to do everything that we can to give these girls a great experience and the opportunity to find a dress that they love for their prom,” Olivia says. “Knowing I am helping to make a difference for these girls feels amazing.”
Maxwell is the Coordinator of Digital Engagement for The State University of New York.