‘Ottawa’ Fairy Godmoms Help Dress Prom Princesses
Anuarite Manyoha and about 99 other Ottawa high school graduates said yes to a free prom dress on Saturday.
Manyoha’s choice was an asymmetrical white chiffon gown with gold beading at the waist, accessorized with a pair of oversized gold hoop earrings, a bracelet adorned with crystals and white satin heels.
“I just feel beautiful in it,” says Manyoha, who will be wearing her fashion find to her prom at the Hilton Lac Leamy on June 4.
The Ridgemont High School student, who will be studying nursing at Algonquin this fall, was among the graduates taking part in Fairy Godmother Ottawa’s “boutique.” The 14-year-old non-profit offers free gently worn prom dresses, shoes and accessories, and expert advice on how to wear them.
Cosmetics entrepreneur Melissa Shabinsky co-founded Fairy Godmother with friend and fellow former model Catherine Whitla in 2002 after hearing about a similar program in the U.S. The dresses and accessories are donated. After a dress is returned, it’s dry-cleaned and put back on the racks.
“You see the girls come in, and they’re so shy. Then they try on dresses and their demeanour changes. Our volunteers feel it, too. It’s infectious,” says Shabinsky.
Some of the donations are gala gowns or bridesmaid dresses. Others are brand new. One blue sequined number has a $500 price tag still attached. One donor left her entire collection of formal wear to Fairy Godmother in her will. The inventory — about 1,200 dresses now — is constantly being culled as new donations come in and dresses go through the wear-and-clean cycle a few times, says Shabinsky.
“Everything is in style. We want to make sure all the dresses are prom-worthy.”
Shabinsky and Whitla realized that having a dry cleaning partner was an important part of making Fairy Godmother work. Whitla’s family owns Browns Cleaners. Donated dresses are dropped off at Browns locations. Each dress is cleaned by Browns, which also stores them in a warehouse at City Centre.
The other piece of the puzzle is the fairy godmothers, a group of volunteers who act as “personal shoppers” for the girls, picking out four or five dresses, running back and forth to the racks and helping to narrow down the choices until they find the right dress.
Most of the godmothers have been with the non-profit since it started.
“We’re about the experience as much as the dress,” says Whitla.
Ashley Smith, a guidance counsellor, said a group of girls at her school heard about Fairy Godmother and asked if they could go.
“Prom is a way to belong and it brings some closure to high school,” says Smith. But going all-out can cost hundreds of dollars.
Some girls are sure of what they want. Others bring an entourage of friends to give the final thumbs-up.
Manyoha wanted a long grey or a blue dress. Her fairy godmother, Mary Taggart, sizes up Manyoha’s petite frame and picks out a grey taffeta gown with a ruched skirt, a black lace dress, a white slip dress with gold print and a white Grecian gown.
Manyoha’s eyes light up when she puts on the grey gown. The bodice fits like it was made for her, but the hem is a tripping hazard. The black lace dress is also too long. The white slip dress gaps in the back. Manyoha tries on the white Grecian gown. It’s a hit.
Taggart helps her find a pair of dramatic hoop earrings and a bracelet, and replaces the rhinestoned shoes with a pair of white satin pumps.
Manyoha is grinning broadly. She likes what she sees in the mirror.
“The girls come in all shapes and sizes — like we all do,” says Taggart. “They all leave with a dress. It’s pretty amazing.”