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Christine Mayer

Image: Barbara Banks

When Christine Mayer and a friend heard about a New Orleans organization that gives free prom dresses to girls in need, “We said, ‘We could do that!” says the retired elementary school teacher. Eight years, three locations and thousands of dresses later, Mayer spends much of prom season in a room in a school board building she calls “The Closet,” helping hundreds of girls find the dress—and shoes, jewelry and wraps—of their dreams.

“Most of our dresses are donated by individuals, but we get some from consignment shops and boutiques. We have about 1,500 right now—BCBG, Oleg Cassini, couture, hand-made gowns from China—you name it.”

“How do you qualify? By walking through the door and saying, ‘I need a dress.’ Girls come from Tampa, Arcadia, Port Charlotte. Some Hispanic girls don’t speak English and I don’t speak Spanish, so I just shake my head ‘No’ or say ‘Si! Si!’ when they try on. We have girls in wheelchairs, girls with disabilities. Everybody leaves happy.”

“It takes a lot for a girl to come here. Girls that age are status-conscious. By walking in, they are saying, ‘I need help.’”

“I’ve realized that what’s meant to happen will happen. When I needed racks for the dresses, I went on Amazon and found a man in Atlanta who manufactures them. I needed 10 and they were $125 each. All I had was $500 seed money from the Sarasota County teachers union. This man I’d never met said, ‘I’m giving you 13 racks and I’m paying the shipping.’”

“I get some volunteers, but most of the time, it’s just me. And that’s fine. I’m Type A and I have everything organized by size and color. These dresses are my friends. I’ve felt them, I know them all. If someone says. ‘I’m a size 8 and I want a mermaid gown,’ I can go right to the rack and find it.”

“I love the girls to death, but sometimes they are not realistic. They are so conscious about their size. I get my scissors and cut the tag off and say, ‘There! It’s not a size 16 anymore. It’s the dress that fits you and that you look beautiful in.’”

“Some girls want dresses that are too short, too low-cut, too tight. I say, ‘Honey, you should present yourself as a beautiful, confident, respected young woman without trying so hard to sell sexy.’”

“Clothes reflect who you are. I want her dress to be the one that makes her boyfriend realize she’s the princess he dreamed about, her parents cry as they see her go off to her first prom, and the chaperones say, ‘OMG—I never realized she is so beautiful!’”

“A girl the size of nothing came in wearing boots, jeans and a camo hoodie. She had her arms crossed defensively and looked at dark, plain dresses—like she wanted to disappear. I pulled out a gorgeous gown and said, ‘I know this isn’t what you’re looking for, but I haven’t seen it on anyone yet—would you try it on for me?’ She put it on and stared at herself in the mirror. ‘I didn’t know I was this pretty,’ she said. She cried and I cried.”­

To learn more, visit Free Prom Gowns in SRQ on Facebook.

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