story by Rachel Anderson | photography by Alexandra Fernholz
“I’m going to look like Cinderella!”
These words are all it took for the nationwide program Cinderella’s Closet to help thousands of girls turn dresses into dreams.
Erin Peterson was at a consignment shop in 2006 when she overheard a teenage girl asking the clerk if she could put a beautiful Prom dress on hold while she figured out a way to pay for it. The girl had asked her foster mother for some money, but the family couldn’t afford to spend that much on a dress she would only wear once.
Peterson knew she could buy the dress for the girl. After convincing the girl to let her help, and through many tears, the girl left the store holding the dress that she knew would make her feel like Cinderella on Prom night. Peterson decided she would go back to the store the next year and wait for girls who couldn’t afford the dress of their dreams so she could help even more.
However, over the next year, those plans grew bigger than Peterson expected and the very first Cinderella’s Closet was held in Immanuel United Methodist Church in Lakeside Park, Kentucky.
Cinderella’s Closet is a volunteer-run organization that relies on the donations of individuals and organizations to collect new and gently used Prom dresses and accessories. The dresses are provided for free to girls who are experiencing personal or financial hardship and need assistance in obtaining the perfect dress for Prom.
There are now locations in 17 cities in 11 different states. The Southwest Ohio branch has been operating since 2009 and is held at Crossroad Church in Mason. When Peterson saw former Lakota teacher Sara Mosteller volunteering at a similar type of program that held a Prom for adults with special needs, Peterson knew Mosteller had the heart to join the Cinderella team.
“It was just one of those things that once I got started [volunteering] I couldn’t stop,” Mosteller said. “I couldn’t say no.”
To qualify for the Cinderella’s Closet, a school counselor or social service worker has to make a referral for the girl to attend. The girls have to be enrolled in school as a junior or senior. The student will then get an appointment time to shop at Cinderella’s Closet during one of the days it is open. The specific date is usually in March or April, but can differ depending on the location.
The magic begins when the doors open and the girls are greeted by their fairy godmothers. The fairy godmothers represent a portion of the 388 volunteers it takes to run the two-day outreach event. They stay by the side of the girls, who for that night are called Princesses, to help them find their perfect dress.
“The way they greeted me made me feel like I was welcome,” Talawanda junior Nicole Marco said. “I came in really anxious and nervous, but I felt fine when [my Fairy Godmother] was here.”
The girls start by choosing four dresses out of the 2,000 lined up against the walls of a giant dimly-lit room. Once they narrow the dresses down to their two favorites, they can go to the waiting area to model the dresses for their friends or family. They can try on as many dresses as it takes to find the perfect one.
Dress sizes range from zero to 28 and Cinderella’s Closet has on-site tailors who will make alterations to the dresses, guaranteeing that each girl will leave with a dress that fits them perfectly.
After finding the perfect dress, the Princesses are ushered to the accessories boutique area where an assistant will select everything needed to complete the look: jewelry, wraps, purses, hair accessories, and shoes. The only decision the girls have to make is which accessory they like best. It is the volunteer’s job to make this part as stress-free and fun as possible.
“Like in Cinderella, our accessories assistants bend down on their hands and knees and put the glass slipper on [the Princess’s] foot,” Mosteller said. “It’s a really humbling experience to allow someone to serve you in that way, but it also feels really good.”
The Fairy Godmothers carry the dresses, shoes, and pink and gray duffel bags filled with goodies to each station for the Princesses.
This year, on April 8 and 9, when the local Cinderella’s Closet event was hosted, they gave away 723 different accessory items. That includes 196 pairs of shoes, 197 necklaces, 195 pairs of earrings, 15 rings, 30 bracelets, 20 purses, 20 wraps, and 50 various tiaras and hairpieces.
Next, the Princesses get their hair and make-up touched up so they are picture perfect and ready for the following stations.
Once the look is complete and alterations have been made, a professional photographer takes an 8×10 photograph and delivers it to the girl’s school a few weeks later for her to keep as a reminder of their special afternoon.
The last stop of Cinderella’s Closet is the Princess checkout area. Volunteers will steam and bag the dress, as well as stuff a duffel bag full of cosmetics and personal care items for the Princesses so that they can replicate their look on Prom night. This includes soap, face wash, shampoo, lotion, make-up, and fake eyelashes. This year alone, Mosteller estimated that they gave away over 1,500 items.
Everything at this event is donated either by community members or businesses. This year Johnson & Johnson, Neutrogena, and Kiss cosmetics all donated items.
“We’re a great place for high school girls, who have already worn a dress, shoes, or jewelry and know that they’re not going to wear it again,” said Mosteller. “[Then they’re] able to give it to somebody who will value it and make them feel like a princess.”
Boutiques such as Pure Couture Prom donate dresses for various reasons, but not because they are defective. The value of the dress may vary from $250 to more than $800. The dresses all still have tags on them.
While Cinderella’s Closet is thankful for those donations, they also heavily rely on donations from the people in the community. About 75 percent of the dresses in the inventory have been donated by girls who want to make an impact by dropping off their dresses.
To donate dresses, shoes, or jewelry, anyone can drop them off at one of three local dry cleaners. Deluxe Dry Cleaners on Cox Lane, Deluxe Dry Cleaners at Union Center, and Lapels Dry Cleaning on Princeton Rd all accept donations and will clean the dresses for free if donors mention they are for Cinderella’s Closet.
When the dry cleaners accumulate a stack of dresses, they will call Cinderella’s Closet and a representative will go pick them up. All of the extra inventory is stored in a storage unit.
While the title of Director is a non-paid role, Mosteller said she easily works six to eight hours a day in the months leading up to the event to make sure everything runs smoothly.
There is a team of 17 volunteers who help Mosteller plan throughout the year. They are each in charge of an area and are responsible for the donations and volunteers. There are 576 volunteer roles that need to be filled on the day of, from setup and teardown, taking pictures, serving as a Fairy Godmother, and everything in between.
“There is a visible transformation. You watch girls raise up their shoulders, stand straighter, and they’re beaming by the end,” said Mosteller. “It makes all the hours of planning and organizing and the months that lead into the event absolutely worth it.”
Kimberly Nimeskern was the recipient of a dress in 2016 and 2017. She came back to volunteer as a Fairy Godmother this year.
“I want to make girls feel how I got to feel,” Nimeskern said. “I never got to feel beautiful or great about myself and [Cinderella’s Closet] gave me that opportunity.”