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Event works to help Batavia students afford prom dresses

Racks of newly-cleaned evening gowns filled the basement recreation room at Congregational Church of Batavia recently.

Dress shoes, jewelry and accessories waited on nearby tables, just as five Community Helpers Impacting People in Need volunteers waited to help high school girls find the perfect free dress for prom.

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All they lacked was girls looking for those perfect dresses.

"We're not sure what's going on this year," said Joanne Spitz, co-chairman of the group that works to help Batavia students in need.

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"Last year we gave away more than 100 dresses, and we gave away at least 50 dresses the year before that, which was our first year doing this," she said during the sale. "So far, we've had maybe 30 girls come in over the last three days and we've given or sold 19 dresses."

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The gown selection couldn't have discouraged girls with limited prom budgets from attending the third annual sale. Many of the 200 or so dresses were new clothes donated by area bridal shops and formalwear boutiques, while the rest were in "like-new" condition. Sizes ranged from 0 to XXL, and the styles included knee length and ankle length, slinky with spaghetti straps, strapless with poufy skirts and just about everything in between. In fact, the donation haul was so good this year that event organizers decided to advertise it throughout the Fox Valley and to invite girls who didn't meet Illinois' "low-income family" criteria to buy gowns for either $25 or $50, as compared to the $100 to $400 they'd pay in a retail store, said event co-chairman Melinda Kintz.

Proceeds from dress sales will pay for prom ticket subsidies and tuxedo rentals for low-income boys, she added.

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"We don't care about making money from this," Spitz said. "We just want every student to be able to go to prom even if money is tight at home."

Sugar Grove resident Stephanie Biery and her daughter, Courtney, brought exchange student Katrin Hunger to find a dress for Kaneland High School's prom.

"I did not save money for a prom dress because we don't have proms in Germany," said Hunger, who hails from Chemnitz, which was once behind the Iron Curtain. "There is a dance for seniors when they graduate, but it is just for seniors and it is not formal. I'm very excited to go to a prom here, and I'm very surprised to get a dress for free. In Germany we have places where poor people can go to get clothes, but they don't have dresses like this. This is a princess dress!"

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Not all the dresses claimed at the event will grace a prom dance floor. Rotolo Middle School counselors chose about 20 age-appropriate knee-length dresses to give to eighth-graders for the school's dinner dance, Spitz said, while a few girls picked out gowns for other occasions.

Courtney Biery, a Kaneland sophomore, picked out a few dresses to try on and had a hard time deciding which one she wanted to buy.

"I wasn't expecting to even try anything on, much less get anything, but these dresses are all really nice," she observed.

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Meanwhile, volunteers were brainstorming ways to better publicize and position next year's prom dress extravaganza. Some ideas they're considering include partnering with an area library, holding the event earlier in the spring and promoting it at Batavia High School events like Rock the Runway, a fashion show for student designers in which all the clothing must be made of non-textile materials.

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"We are still making a difference here," Kintz asserted. "... A girl came in, found a beautiful dress and started to cry because she was so happy. She went around and shook every volunteer's hand and thanked her, while her mother kept asking, 'Are you sure it's free?' That's when I knew we have to do this again next year, because helping even one girl go to prom who couldn't otherwise afford it makes all this worthwhile."

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