Catholic Sentinel photos by Clarice Keating
A shopper sorts through clothes at Abby's Closet's annual prom dress givaway.
Catholic Sentinel photos by Clarice Keating
A shopper sorts through clothes at Abby's Closet's annual prom dress givaway.
As a high school girl timidly steps out from behind a curtain, barefoot and hair tied back messily, her mother gasps. “That is the dress!” Other teenage girls turn toward their peer in the eye-catching floor-length azure gown. Friends start clapping and strangers join in, calling out, “You look so pretty!” or “Awesome dress!”

Standing ovations don’t happen when you’re prom dress shopping at the mall. But these outbursts of joy and support are commonplace at Abby’s Closet, a nonprofit that pairs teens with the perfect prom dress. Last weekend, thousands of girls descended on the popup “boutique” at the DoubleTree Hotel-Lloyd Center's exhibit hall to pick out one of the approximately 7,000 dresses donated to the organization. Student ID is all girls need to pick out a dress and accessories. Volunteer tailors even offer simple alterations.

When Abby Egland and her mom Sally founded the organization eight years ago, they thought they were simply giving free prom dresses to underprivileged girls.

“We quickly learned that it's more about the experience — not the free gown,” said Sally, business manager at Resurrection Parish in Tualatin.  “The girls value being treated with respect and dignity; they want to feel like other girls — being able to walk into a ‘store’ and choose whatever gown she wants.”

Any stigma around taking home a used dress is obliterated by Abby Closet’s volunteers, many of whom are high school and college women, whose games and attitudes turn the shopping event into a party atmosphere. Music blasts as they rev up the crowd waiting in “Anticipation Alley,” a holding section in the complicated rotation that efficiently moves the young shoppers through the store. Volunteers are asked to make each girl feel welcomed, special, beautiful, confident and valued, Sally said, and that attitude is contagious among the shoppers, too.

When volunteers showed up in early morning Saturday, they discovered girls were already waiting for the 7 a.m. start. Some girls camped out overnight, on lawn chairs and under umbrellas, hoping to be the first to cherry-pick their dresses.

Even after the doors open, the wait can be long.

“Some girls wait six hours,” said Student Advisory Board member Emily-Rose Wiitala, a senior at Central High School. Wiitala is part of a team in charge of making that wait fun. Girls get makeup tips from Paul Mitchell stylists or play goofy games.

Christina Gill,a Student Advisory Board member from Jesuit High, said the organization and weekend-long shopping event are always fun, and she loves being able to give back to people her own age.

A company in New York donated 500 pairs of opera-length formal gloves in a spectrum of colors.

Sue Roth signed on to serve as a board member after her first volunteer experience. She helped a 6-foot-2-inch track runner find a gown, a girl who was hopeless she would ever find a dress in her size. But then Roth spotted one item on the rack, hanging several inches below the others. It was the perfect floor-length dress for the girl.

“She cried. Her mom cried. I cried,” Roth said. “And every year the girls get more appreciative.”

Sally said Abby’s Closet's organizational values reflect Catholic social teaching. An underlying value is respect, she said, “Respect for the girls we serve, respect for each other and respect for the donations we receive.” There is also a deep level of esteem for the environment – each dress that a girl takes home is one more item kept out of the waste stream.

Cassie Passon, a University of Portland senior, picked her prom dress at Abby’s Closet as a high school junior.  Now she runs dress drives at her college and volunteers at the giveaway. She loves it when a girl comes out of the dressing room to show off her dress, and the crowd cheers.

“This is the best store in town when it comes to prom dresses,” Passon said.

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