(Photo: Courtesy of Joylene MacNeil)

Prom season is a time for graduating students to ditch the books and start planning the *perfect* way to wrap up their high school years. Between anxiously awaiting an elaborate promposal (or planning one) to prepping with manis, hair appointments and a trip (or two) to the MAC counter, prom is meant to be fun. But it’s definitely not cheap—and for some students, the hefty cost means prom is firmly out of reach.

Community fundraiser Gowns for Girls wants to change that by donating dresses, shoes and accessories to graduating students, helping ensure all girls make it to their prom. The program was founded by Durham Regional Police constable and youth officer Joylene MacNeil in 2014 when she learned that students in her area weren’t attending their proms because they couldn’t afford it.

“I know how important that milestone was for me and I want the youth in our area to experience that as well,” she told FLARE. “I knew I had to do something to help them.”

Money is a major barrier when it comes to prom. A 2011 survey in the U.S. found a quarter of American families didn’t send their kids to prom because it was too expensive, and Canadians face similar problems, too. With the cost of a dress, shoes, corsages, accessories, a prom ticket and limo rental, the final bill can be upwards of $500. But though there are some more affordable prom dress options on the market, the biggest expense is definitely the all-important prom look, which is what Gowns for Girls aims to alleviate.

Police officer Joylene MacNeil standing with a student

(Joylene MacNeil standing next to a student. Photo: Courtesy of Joylene MacNeil)

Every year, MacNeil and a team of 40-50 volunteers turn the gym at Bobby Orr Public School in Oshawa, Ontario into a shopping event and invite graduating grade 12 students in the Durham Region to attend. The gymnasium-turned-boutique has racks filled with prom dresses of different sizes, colours and styles for girls to choose from, with additional tables for shoes and accessories. Students can also enter ballots for the chance to win gift certificates for hair styling, makeup and manicures to complete their look.

Since MacNeil started the program, Gowns for Girls has sent over 1,000 youth to prom—and that number is growing. “The first year we had about 75 youth that came out, and then we just kind of grew each year after that,” she says. This year’s event helped over 350 girls find dresses, with a record number of attendance and prom dress donations. MacNeil now also helps find dresses for girls grade eight graduation ceremonies, too.

So where does Gowns for Girls get all their dresses from?

When MacNeil first started the program, she sent out an internal email to fellow police officers asking if they had any dresses they didn’t need anymore. “As we all know, we wear a dress once, dry clean it and put it to the back of our closet and we never wear it again,” she says. “We all do that as women!”

MacNeil was right in assuming women had *a lot* of prom-worthy dresses sitting in their closets, and decided to extend the call to the larger community. At last year’s event alone, Gowns for Girls received an estimated 2,000 prom dress donations. This year, their collection continued to grow.

A police officer holding a dress while a girl tries on shoes

(Photo: Courtesy of Joylene MacNeil)

And community interest has grown, too. During Gowns for Girls’ shopping events, officers and volunteers work alongside the girls to help them pick a special dress for their big night. Some officers’ moms have even jumped on board to do tailoring.

“We want to make this milestone that would have otherwise been a struggle for [young girls] into a very special and positive experience,” MacNeil says. “It’s so much more than just the dress.”

One story in particular stands out for MacNeil. Two years ago, a graduating high school student fell on hard times and was living with her brother with no family support. She wasn’t planning on attending her prom. When she was invited to a Gowns for Girls shopping event, MacNeil says something in her shifted. The student spent the weeks leading up to her prom taking pictures in her new dress every day, and doing her hair in different styles to see which best complemented the look. “There was just an overall change in her,” MacNeil says.

While Gowns for Girls is helping young women go to prom, MacNeil is also aware she’s helping build the community— especially since many young girls don’t get to know police officers in such an intimate capacity. “We provide the youth with our business cards just to send us a picture of them on their ‘big day’ because we feel like we know them by the time they leave that night,” she says.

“It’s a great experience not only for the youths, but for our officers and civilians as well.”

If you want to help out or donate a dress, contact Gowns for Girls at gownsforgirls@drps.ca


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