BY COLLEEN SPARKS
Teenage girls are getting a chance to feel like royalty when they hit the dance floors at their high school proms, thanks to a nonprofit organization giving them a boost in Chandler.
The East Valley Women’s League gave away formal dresses, shoes, purses and jewelry to girls who might not otherwise be able to afford them as part of its Cinderella Affair, held March 25th, April 1st and April 8th in an office space transformed into a boutique on North McKemy Avenue.
Proms are taking place this month and in May around the Valley. The formal dances are a popular tradition, where often boys devise elaborate invitations to ask girls to accompany them. Frequently, students will go out to dinner with their dates and friends before the dance and rent limousines or party buses to ride to elegant venues for the dances.
Girls who are juniors and seniors at high schools in Chandler, Tempe, Gilbert, Mesa and Ahwatukee Foothills, with help from volunteer “fairy godmothers,” got to pick a free dress. They also received a pair of shoes and two pieces of jewelry. Volunteer seamstresses even made minor repairs to the dresses so the girls could go in style to the big dances.
All the teens had to do was show their student identification in order to get the free gowns and accessories, said Traci Estenson, East Valley Women’s League member, who calls herself the “chief fairy godmother” for the Cinderella Affair project.
The event started in 2002 as a way to help girls who didn’t have the resources to buy dresses for their proms feel like a million bucks so they wouldn’t miss the dances, which are a rite of passage for many teens. “Most of the kids that are getting a dress are in financial need,” Estenson of Tempe said. “I think every girl should have at least one day in their lives
where they feel amazing head to toe. It does a lot for your self-esteem.”
Estenson said the Cinderella Affair is an emotional event, as girls find their perfect dress and feel grateful for the experience. “It’s amazing,” she said. “Their eyes just twinkle.”
The dress is a key to the high school students’ magical night at prom, which is often their “first big event” other than a wedding where they can “dress up and feel their best,” Estenson said.
Estenson is thankful to Dillard’s, Group USA, and Uptown Bridal & Boutique for their support in the way of dress donations. She’s also grateful to community members for their donations of dresses and financial support and to Arbonne Charitable Foundation for donating makeup.
The girls went to the events and got tickets, handed out on a first-come, first-served basis, then waited in line to view a variety of dresses in trending styles, including the popular mermaid types. The dresses would cost anywhere from $100 to $800 if sold at full retail price.
“This year’s been very much on trend,” Estenson said. “We get great jewelry. We only keep the best for our princesses here.”
About 260 girls attended the Cinderella Affair on April 1st and almost 300 visited on March 25th and April 8th. More than 4,000 dresses were available for girls to check out. Last year, about 1,200 dresses were given away at the Cinderella Affair.
The office is set up like a boutique with dresses arranged by size and another room for the girls to view jewelry. Eager mothers sat in a waiting room for their daughters at the events. The girls would pick out five or six dresses to try on, with aid from volunteers. “The parents were just overjoyed at saving the money, because prom is so expensive,” Estenson said. “Everyone that walks through those doors is special. We want to make sure they feel special head to toe.”
“The girls, it’s amazing,” she said. “Some of them cry. Some of them are like, ‘I wouldn’t be able to go to prom without you.’”
Estenson said it’s rare for girls not to find dresses they like, but it’s happened on a few occasions so the League has just given them money to buy a dress at a store.
She said the cause is important to her because her family struggled financially when she was growing up, though she did have a chance to attend her prom in Pennsylvania. Estenson, 49, said her prom was a great time and she “felt like a princess being on the arm of a guy.” She believes the romance of prom is appealing to teens, though preparations and costs for the dance have gotten much bigger since when she was a teenager.
Between the dresses, tuxedos, shoes, hair styling at salons, corsages, dinner, tickets and other costs, students can end up spending at least $500 on their prom experience, Estenson said. She said her daughter, Sami, 17, might go to her high school prom in Chandler, and she will probably give her some money toward her dress.
Estenson said her daughter has volunteered with the Cinderella Affair and is impressed with the quality of dresses offered there.
To learn more about The Cinderella Affair, visit cinderellaaffair.org.