Prom Boutique expands with online innovation

A rack of dresses at ReCreateU, one of Prom Boutique's drop-off locations. Photo by Christian CangianoA rack of dresses at ReCreateU, one of Prom Boutique's drop-off locations. Photo by Christian Cangiano

By Chris Peraino and Christian Cangiano

Prom Boutique, an annual Long Island-wide donation event that supplies young women of low-income with dresses and accessories for their prom and graduation, started collecting dresses online for the first time in early March.

Prom Boutique is in its 23rd year and this is the first in which the program has enabled online capabilities. The Long Island Volunteer Center runs Prom Boutique in conjunction with the fashion and marketing departments at Nassau Community College.

“For girls that are registered for the event, but cannot attend for any reason, we are implementing this year – first time ever – a Google Form for the girls to show out,” Diana O’Neill, Director of the Long Island Volunteer Center, said.

Inspired by recent online retail trends, young women are able to fill out a comprehensive Google Form that asks for various dress preferences and size inquiries. They can then couple the questionnaire with uploaded pictures of their hypothetical dream dress from Instagram or Pinterest. This allows the Prom Boutique to reach an expected record high number of young women, possibly surpassing the 1,800 dresses that were donated post-Superstorm Sandy. Over 300 young women have already signed up, with the request deadline not falling until the third week of April.

Nassau Community College fashion students are given the opportunity to act as personal shoppers who match dresses based on the preferences detailed by young women in their Google Form, offering them field experience, while also benefiting underprivileged young adults. These selections are then shipped to the homes of the young women.

“It’s not just a career responsibility and growth,” Heidi O’Connell, professor of Marketing Retailing and Fashion at Nassau Community College, said.  “It also gives back to the community.”

O’Neill established the first boutique 23 years ago when she serviced 35 young women in an impromptu pop-up dress stand.

Now, the program boasts 20 drop-off location, a staff of 300 volunteers and thousands of donated dresses to young women of low-income families to date.

“I always say that this project validates whatever it took in this young woman to, under adverse circumstances, graduate,” O’Neill said. “Stay in school, get her diploma, walk with her class and now celebrate that accomplishment. Their parents and their teachers tell us that they would not be able to go to their event [without a dress].”

Since the Prom Boutique relies on donated trucks to haul dresses from drop-off locations to Nassau Community College, the host of the dress selection event, it has traditionally set aside a singular selection day for logistical reasons.

Efforts to broaden the collection-side of the Prom Boutique are also occurring. Alumni of Villanova University have established an alternate collection date at St. Anthony’s High School. And while most drop-off locations only accept donations on April 23, a few, such as ReCreateU, a clothing boutique in Rockville Center, are open for donations from now up until April 23 during business hours.  

“I always wanted to do charity work… I can help the best I can as long as I can stay in the store and not take too much time away from my store,” Rachel Song, owner of ReCreateU, said. “I started to post on social media and telling all my clients. I even have a mailing list, about 500 people

In order to protect the anonymity of the young women, and to forestall any stigmatization, distribution of the dresses is conducted confidentially. The volunteer center contacts high school guidance counselors, social workers and at-risk youth programs, who in return notify young women of low income families of the opportunity to obtain a prom or ceremonial dress free of charge. If accepting, the women are given the date of the dress selection event, which remains undisclosed to the public; attendance is run via a private, invite-only basis.

Funding for the program, which is wholly volunteer-based, is provided by a number of sponsors, this year’s largest being HSBC Bank.

“When you see that look of pure joy on a young woman’s face, you know how hard she had to work to get there,” O’Neill said. “And know she’s found something that really validates, sets the confidence in her and you can’t almost put it into words. It’s just pure joy. And we as individuals witness that we are just invited to a really special moment: a memory marker in a young woman’s life.”