Standing in a storage room filled with clothing racks of pretty prom dresses at Hays High School, 17-year-old senior Gabriella Arthur held up a red gown on a hanger that had caught her eye.
“Jazmin, look at the little bow, it’s so cute,” she said to her classmate, senior Jazmin Juhan.
“We have a lot of really pretty ones,” agreed Juhan, 17, holding up the one she liked, a short sequined burgundy and black dress, one of many amidst the 350-ish that will be given away free this month as part of Project Prom.
Juhan and Arthur are students in the Hays High Helping Hands career program, which spearheads Project Prom as a community service event.
The project connects donated formal wear with students who don’t have the money to buy their own for prom. Giveaways range from formal dresses and men’s suit pants and jackets to jewelry, shoes, ties and vests, as well as vintage and retro formal wear. Each one carries a Project Prom tag.
“The tag says Project Prom to Remember: Making Prom Possible,” said Juhan. “And it says ‘Pay it Forward.’”
This is Juhan’s first year with Helping Hands, talked into taking the class by her mom, who was also in the program as a student at Hays High.
“I think it’s really nice. My first year at prom I spent hundreds of dollars on my dress and getting my hair and stuff done. This can cut the cost in half for most girls and guys trying to get clothes for prom,” Juhan said. “It really makes prom happen because there are so many kids who don’t go because they can’t afford it. It’s really nice when they don’t have to miss out on anything, because it’s a part of high school. Prom’s a big thing.”
The free giveaway is Saturday, Feb. 23 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the former rue21 shop at Big Creek Crossing, 2918 Vine. The mall is donating the use of the vacated retail space.
Hays High’s Helping Hands is a student-run bakery designed to teach business skills, led by Hays High co-teachers Jolene Windholz and Michelle Thacker.
Started 28 years ago, Helping Hands has expanded now to include the Indian Grounds coffee shop at the high school, and numerous community service projects, including Project Prom. Now in its second year, Project Prom was Thacker’s brainchild and is partly funded with a $500 grant from Midwest Energy Inc.
Thacker and Windholz said they and the students are working now on the preparation and logistics. The Midwest Energy money has helped with some purchases, mannequins, dress tags and clothing racks, but other items are needed.
“We’re looking for some fixtures,” Thacker said. “This year we are probably going to have to go purchase some brackets.”
They’ve also gotten help from Top Notch Cleaners, 201 W. Eighth.
“They take the things that we can’t launder,” Windholz said. “They’ll get it all cleaned up for us, and last year they gave us bags.”
Students from schools everywhere are invited to the giveaway.
“We’ve reached out to the Ellis schools, we’ve reached out to Victoria, we’ve reached out to Plainville and La Crosse and WaKeeney,” Thacker said. “We’d be happy to serve any person that needs something.”
Arthur says she plans to get her gown from Project Prom for the Hays High prom April 13 in the Black and Gold Room at Fort Hays State University. Junior Litzy Rodriguez, 17, is also part of the project, but doesn’t know yet if she’ll get off work to go.
Project Prom is looking for donations that are clean, with no stains or holes, smoke free and with jewels and beading intact.
Donations come from all over, including the wedding and clothing boutique Something Blue, 1012 Main St., the Community Assistance Center, 208 E. 12th, and the Arc of Central Plains, 600 Main.
Senior Quinn Martens-Bobbitt said his mom got donations from the hospital where she works, as well as from relatives, including his aunt-in-law.
“They’ve come from all over the state,” Windholz said. “We have relatives that have daughters and they’re cleaning out and they’re like ‘here, come take this.’”
As many guys are looking for formal wear as girls, from sport coats and slacks, to ties and dress shirts.
“That’s a real need, menswear,” Windholz said. “They really took ties last year, those really went out, and the Sponge Bob went fast.”
Senior Quinn Martens-Bobbitt got a sport coat from Project Prom last year. The jacket was a special donation for Windholz personally.
“Quinn got my dad’s favorite coat,” she said. “My dad had died and my mother had been hanging on to some things and she knew we were having this, so she said ‘Go take your dad’s clothes.’ So Quinn got it, and it fit. My
dad was six-five and kind of like Quinn. It just touched my heart to have a student get it.”
Martens-Bobbitt will wear the classic navy blue blazer with brass buttons again this year, he said.
“It feels like a legacy that’s been passed on,” Martens-Bobbitt said. “There’s not a lot of wear and tear to it. It feels very new, but it has that old-soul vibe.”
The first year of Project Prom, the class had about 250 items and gave away 48 dresses, despite it was a rainy, foggy day. They handed out gift bags with lotion and shower gel too, a nod to the ‘thank you’ gift bags common with dress shops.
If the Big Creek Crossing store hours aren’t handy, Project Prom makes exceptions. After Feb. 23, the formal wear will be available at Hays High after school, once in March and once in April.
“Some kids don’t decide until the last minute that they want to go,” Thacker said. “We’ll also take appointments, and we have kids that we’ll meet down here whenever we can work it out.”
It’s Thacker’s dream that Project Prom can someday have its own dedicated space, “where we could have our dresses where kids any time of the year could come and we could serve them.”
Kids need formal wear for other functions besides dances, she said, such as school banquets.
“It would be nice to serve our population more than a couple times a year,” Thacker said. “It would be nice to have a permanent store that we didn’t have to keep hidden in a storage room. That’s a dream, and in the meantime we make do with what we have.”
With donations from all over and from so many years past, is there any particular fashion trend?
“You see short dresses, you see pants, you see a little bit of everything,” Thacker said. “I can’t pick out that it’s one style or another, these kids come dressed to suit themselves.”
And as the Helping Hands flyer says: “Giving back is always in style!”