Las Vegas Sun

May 23, 2019

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Gown Center: Organization collects donated dresses to ease prom costs

They looked like remnants from the Academy Awards.

Gowns made of lace, satin, iridescent fabric and velour were wrapped in plastic, stuffed in boxes and clinging to hangers. Boxes of formal shoes, jewelry and other accessories were piled nearby.

"I wore this in college and didn't want to let go of it," said 23-year-old Ashley Flatt, picking up a simple black evening gown atop a pile of donated prom dresses.

"But when am I ever going to wear this? Some girl could use this and have a great night that she otherwise might not be able to have."

Flatt's old formal gowns, it turned out, would be somebody else's ticket to the prom. Several months ago the University of Nevada, Las Vegas senior gathered her assortment of prom dresses and went online to see what she could do with them. She came across a Reno-based program called Aly's Prom Closet a nonprofit effort with a Cinderella twist.

The program sends teens from low-income families and foster families to the prom by giving them donated new and used dresses, tuxedos and other services. It was named after Aly Christiansen, a Reno native killed in a Las Vegas car crash in December 2001 while attending UNLV.

Wanting to help Las Vegas teens, Flatt and her mom, Leigh Aurbach, contacted Aly's Prom Closet to see if they could open a branch of the program in Las Vegas. More than 300 donated dresses later, the Las Vegas Aly's Prom Closet has opened its doors.

"Aly had a connection to Las Vegas so they were thrilled someone would carry the torch down here," Aurbach said.

Local guidance counselors participating in the program were also thrilled.

"A lot of the kids, they don't feel they can ask for $200 to go buy a dress when Mom can't buy shoes for the younger boy or put food in the refrigerator," said Kim Perry-Carter, head guidance counselor for Desert Pines high school.

"And this is something they look forward to when they enter high school. It's their last event as seniors to get together and have that last party before graduation. Everybody's trying to look their best and it gets expensive."

To promote the effort, posters and pamphlets have been distributed at participating high schools. Students have the option of approaching their counselor for a referral or calling Aly's Prom Closet directly.

Qualifying teens will receive a free dress from its retail space in Commercial Center. Shoes and jewelry have also been donated.

Sending teens to prom

More than 20 businesses, organizations and school groups are working on the effort. The retail space was donated. Mission Industries provided racks to hold the dresses and local dry cleaners are cleaning the dresses.

Organizers aren't sure how many students will participate. Whatever is leftover this year will be used in next year's effort.

"We got a late start," Aurbach said. "Hopefully next year it will be more well known, and we'll get tuxes, and other stuff that girls need."

The first Las Vegas dress drive, held by UNLV's Delta Chi fraternity and sororities that included some of Aly Christiansen's friends, brought in 300 dresses, some still with their tags on.

"Everybody realizes what a good concept this is," said 22-year-old Nick Christiansen, Aly's older brother and member of Delta Chi who organized the drive after hearing the prom closet was going to open in Las Vegas.

"Sometimes you just don't think about it. You think everybody gets to go to prom. It's kind of put out there that it's the best night that you're supposed to have before college."

But local counselors say many teens are left behind. In addition to low-income families, there are homeless students attending schools in the Clark County School District.

"It's no secret," Kristin Conser, a guidance counselor at Rancho high school, said. "You have a lot of low-income, at-risk kids in Las Vegas who don't have the money to go to prom. When I heard about Aly's Prom Closet I was very anxious to have it here at Rancho."

Last year some high schools developed their own prom dress programs where homecoming dresses were donated for students to use or seniors donated gowns that could be rented for a small fee.

"But it's a real hard thing," Conser said. "You're in high school. You don't want to tell all your friends that you borrowed some dress for prom."

The idea with Aly's Prom Closet is that nobody has to know.

A simple idea

Stuart Gordon, executive director for Family Counseling Service in Reno, began the Reno program after hearing from foster parents who wanted to send their foster children to prom but couldn't because they didn't have the money.

Gordon began collecting dresses, word of the program spread and volunteers came forward to help out.

In Las Vegas, Consumer Credit Counseling, an affiliate of Reno's Family Counseling Service, is serving as the Las Vegas Aly's Prom Closet nonprofit group.

"It's such a simple idea," said Becky Blank, Christiansen's mom and volunteer for Reno Aly's Prom Closet. "It lets those kids who don't feel like everyone else, feel normal, even for one night.

"When you think of it. There's got to be hundreds of kids who don't go. Everybody remembers their prom, whether it was good or bad. Everybody should be able to go."

In Reno, Blank said, one family drove in from Fallon because the father had lost his job and there was no way they could buy a dress for the daughter.

On Blank's first day of volunteering, she said a teenage girl came in to receive a dress, turned to Blank and said, "I could never even look at a dress like this."

Now in its second year, it has its own retail space and website. Tuxedos, dresses, shoes, jewelry, makeup and alterations are available. Gift certificates are donated for dinners for two.

"Originally (Stuart) was thinking of the foster kids," Blank said. "Where we're at now is that we're moving in every high school here."

Gary Chaires, head counselor at Basic High School, where some of the students are at poverty level, said he expects the program to reach out to a lot of Las Vegas students.

"We want to make it as unintimidating as we can," Chaires said. "There's a lot of single parents and parents out of work. And because of the way the economy has turned ... I can see something like this being really valuable."