COLUMBIA – A new prom dress was out of the question for Imani Bowman, 17, when her mother lost her job just weeks before the big night. But a new prom gown donation project provided Bowman her dream dress for free.
“It’s a vision I’ve had for years, to help young women in need. That’s been a passion of mine,” said the Rev. Melanie Gamble, who founded Esther’s Closet last year after stumbling upon the national Donate My Dress campaign website, which provides donated dresses to girls in need.
The name is a biblical reference, reflecting its ties to Life Change AME Church in Columbia.
“There’s a book in the Bible named after Esther, queen of Persia, who is noted as one of the most beautiful women to have ever lived, and we want these girls to have a queenly experience,” Gamble said.
Bowman, a senior at Dr. Henry A. Wise Jr. High School in Upper Marlboro, said she would have had to wear her homecoming dress to prom if it hadn’t been for Esther’s Closet. Prom tickets alone at her school are $100 each.
“Prom puts a strain on you. Dresses alone are several hundred dollars so this helps out a lot,” said Bowman’s mother, Tamika McMoore of Clinton. “This helps make it less stressful so I can focus on my bills.”
Gamble and a group of volunteers contacted guidance counselors over the past few months to help identify girls in need of dresses, but the dress collection began last year, and Gamble said she has been stunned by the community’s generosity. Several bridesmaids’ dresses were donated by a church-goer after her wedding was called off. A Silver Spring dress shop owner sent in five boxes of unworn dresses after going out of business. More than 100 dresses have come in, both brand new and gently used, from Tahari to Juicy Couture.
Bowman tried on three dresses before settling on a colorful, abstract-print dress embellished with sequins and feathers.
“I wanted something wild to turn heads so when I walk in people say ‘She’s so pretty,’” she said. “I love being the center of attention.”
But the donations go beyond just dresses.
“It’s free dresses, free shoes, free accessories to make sure they have a wonderful prom,” said Mel Dozier, chairwoman of the Esther’s Closet committee.
Dozens of high heels of all sizes, sequined purses and colorful jewelry have been donated to help the girls complete their prom-night looks. A photographer and beautician have also offered their services to a few girls, who will be selected in a drawing, to give them the full prom experience.
Ricki Stevenson, 16, a junior at Lansdowne High School in Baltimore, will also attend her first prom wearing a dress from Esther’s Closet.
“It definitely helps financially. She resides with her grandmother who is in her 70s, so it’s helping us on all ends,” said Cattina Booths, Stevenson’s godmother.
The program helps save money, which makes prom season less stressful, Stevenson said, allowing her to look forward to prom rather than worry about the costs. With tickets, shoes, haircuts, make-up, dresses, accessories and transportation, the cost for the evening can run into hundreds of dollars.
“I’ve never been before. I think it’ll be fun and a good chance to make memories with friends,” Stevenson said.
That’s the kind of special experience Esther’s Closet hopes to give young girls in need. It’s a pity for girls not to be able to attend prom because of the cost, especially when looking beautiful could be just the boost they need, Dozier said.
“You’ve got to have inner strength, but society looks at the outside…you might be hurting on the inside, but if you look great, it can make you happy,” she said. “Times are hard economically. Many families don’t have the funds to buy a new prom dress. This is what Esther’s Closet is. To help these young girls.”
Esther’s Closet will hold its next dress giveaway on Saturday, May 4 at Slayton House in Columbia from 1-5 p.m. Registration is required and details can be found online at www.lifechangeame.com.