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The cost of prom is putting a strain on pocketbooks and the environment. Some people are taking it into their own hands to lessen the burden.
Browsing the aisles at The Gifted Gown in Indianapolis is like stepping into the pages of a fairy tale.
"It's your princess moment," said Julia Rutland, the store's founder.
And if the store is a fairy tale, then Rutland is the fairy godmother, granting the wish of more than 1,000 free dresses over the years.
"Proms, military balls, black tie events, graduations, scholarship pageants — a lot of people have been turned away from other organizations," Rutland said.
She started small with 25 dresses, but as the donations poured in, she noticed the big need and her impact.
"When they put it on and they just know that's the dress, it's the most beautiful feeling," Rutland said.
Rutland says the goal is to make everyone who steps through the store's doors feel like royalty — be it a man or woman. She also gives away men's items, like shoes and jewelry, and provides assistance to members of the LGBTQ community.
"Everyone deserves to feel special and go to any event that they want, and I know that financial issues are are a hindrance for a lot of people, for most of us," Rutland said.
Whether it's for a prom or a wedding, a formal gown can run anywhere from $100 to $1,000 depending on the designer. That's before adding in the price of shoes and accessories. Then there's also the environmental costs, with all those gowns eventually ending up in the trash.
All of these reasons have contributed to the idea of "prom pay it forward" picking up steam across the country.
In Stafford, Virginia, middle school teacher Tasha Burzynski said she's taking part in it after seeing the financial impact of these events on families, including on her own.
"I was a child in need, so this, for me, is my way of paying it forward to other students who financially can't afford an expensive prom dress or just taking that burden off their parents," she explained.
She and fellow educator Jessica Hall organize a yearly pop-up prom shop, collecting gently used formal wear from the community and local boutiques and giving them away to students across the state.
"We did it at a local coffee shop, and just the amount of dresses that we got in such a short time was insane," Hall said.
The event has now moved to the school, complete with dressing rooms and gowns for every body type.
"We've had girls also who just haven't been able to find a dress anywhere else, or maybe they haven't found a dress in their size that works for them," Hall said.
The project doubles as a learning opportunity for students who might not be attending any events of their own but enjoy organizing and fundraising throughout the year, even calling other schools to let them in on the event.
"We have definitely worked on some technology," Burzynski said. "Now, a lot of our students know how to create a flier, to advertise, to communicate with adults."
"We work together, we learn more about each other and we are more of a leader to each other," said Kayla Gillette, a student.
Although the dresses are free, any donations collected this year will be gifted to the event's former seamstress, a school custodian battling cancer.
Hall says the bigger takeaway of it all is the joy of giving back.
"I really saw a need working in education. And as I get to know my students on more of a personal level, and I hear those stories from them, and I just thought, like, 'Wow, this is something that I really want to bring to my community,'" Hall said.
Rutland agrees with the benefits of giving back, saying keeping those old gowns out of the landfill and in the closets of people in need is a dream come true.
"If COVID has taught us anything, it's been that it's not things that are the most important; it's the moments and the people we love and making sure that we get out and participate in life," Rutland said.
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