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Jottings contributor Peggy Keonjian shares her experiences with Abby 's Closet, which gives hundreds of prom gowns away each spring.

COURTESY PHOTO  - Peggy Keonjian poses with a high school teen at Abbys Closet, the once-a-year prom dress give-away event held at Portlands Convention Center.

The parents and their teenage daughter looked stunned as they walked into the huge Convention Center exhibit area. 

It was filled with hundreds of high school girls, dads, moms, friends and those who were drivers of a few or many girls from near and far. Some did jigsaw puzzles at a table, watched demonstrations of hair and makeup ideas for prom, took part in raffles or quietly tried to do homework in the huge noisy room.

The girls were here for just one reason: To find and take home, at no cost, the perfect dress for their high school spring prom.

Beyond partitions waited almost 8,000 prom gowns, neatly hung and flowing like rainbows across the dress area. Girls with pink plastic bags holding the gown they had selected happily chatted as they left with exhausted parents and friends — mission accomplished.

 As the first greeter, I cheerfully asked the entering family "Are  you here for Abby's Closet?" They nodded. "Have you been to Abby's Closet before?" No, they were from a small town near the Canadian border visiting relatives nearby.

When they saw the story about the upcoming prom gown giveaway on television, the daughter knew they had to come, since there was not a store that sold prom dresses within miles of their town.

The family was shown where to get their daughter's numbered wrist band. The numbers of those about to enter the dress area would be listed on social media and white boards so they could keep checking and be ready to go when her number was called.

Dads and boyfriends couldn't go into the dressing area, but moms, girlfriends and grandmas were welcome to help zip, admire or sometimes say "Your father will never let you out of the house in that." 

It was a huge happy party, and the goody bag was the dress. 

 This is Abby's Closet. One weekend a year before high school prom season begins any high school girl can find the prom dress of her dreams and keep it forever if she wishes. Before the weekend is over, almost 4,000 gowns are given away, free, to any high school girl who showed a school ID. There is no other requirement. 

Some gowns went to special needs high school girls who had a separate selection time before the big event.

Forty-three went to any girl running for Rose Festival Princess for the judging at their area high schools, and 1,700 were driven by volunteers to communities too far from Portland for girls to come to the weekend event.

The dresses came from dress drives organized by high school girls, from bridal shops and most of all from girls who donated their special prom gowns so other girls could love it as they had. 

When Abby herself opened the Convention Center doors at 5 a.m. that morning, hundreds of girls rushed in, many of whom had spent the night outside the building so they would be the first to pick a dress from the thousands available. 

For those who came a bit later, the wait may be hours, but from the comments written by the girls as they left with their dresses the wait was "so much fun and so worth it!" 

Many said "I could not have gone to my prom if it wasn't for Abby's Closet." 

These notes are posted in the Abby's Closet meeting room all year to remind the 800 volunteers that all their hard work sorting, tagging, fundraising, collecting dresses and organizing the event is worth it when the gowns are selected. This is the reward, the reason to put in the hours: To know that your effort has made so many girls feel special and beautiful, even if just for one night of prom.

But this isn't just about the dress. Abby's Closet also gives a scholarship each year, from essays submitted by high school girls going on to college. (One of the first girls to receive the scholarship years ago is now a lawyer and has been on the Abby's Closet Board of Directors). The interest is in the total girl, not just the dress.

I could not have imagined 15 years ago when West Linn resident Abby Egland decided to give her beloved pink prom gown to a girl who would also treasure it, that I would see that small idea grow to this.

Abby's mother, Sally, decided to form a nonprofit to find other gowns to give away, have Abby do a dress drive at West Linn High School, and offer the collected few hundred dresses on one spring Saturday at a nearby hotel.

Our family had been friends of the Eglands for many years, so we didn't hesitate to help. We didn't know if anyone would come, but there were girls lined up before we opened the doors. 

At the end of the day, 300 dresses had been given away and Abby's Closet had became a reality. I was privileged to serve on the board of directors for years, and now serve the morning of the big giveaway event as greeter of some of the thousands of girls coming in. 

I loved to hear the stories from those who waited, such as that of the teachers in small Oregon or Washington communities who drove vans of their students to the event, starting out in the middle of the night, or the church groups that arrived in their church buses, and the girls who persuaded businessmen in their small coastal town to rent a school bus so they could come find dresses for their prom.

I talked to parents who patiently waited for daughters to try on dress after dress before finally arriving with the pink bag holding their treasure. It was not uncommon for several hours to have passed, but most parents just grinned and watched the happy faces going by as they waited. Not one said it wasn't worth the wait if it made their daughter happy.

They knew when they saw their girl in her beautiful dress the night of the prom that her childhood might be ending, but a new chapter was also beginning for her.

And it all started with Abby's pink prom dress.

Peggy Keonjian is a member of the Jottings group at the Lake Oswego Adult Community Center.

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