By Pat Brown
When a large room at the YMCA Thrift Shop in Blacksburg opened for this week, it had been transformed into a glamorous boutique full of formal gowns and glamorous accessories. It is called the Cinderella Project, and it has been donating free prom outfits to local high school girls for the past eight years.
There are number of fairy godmothers behind the effort.
“I’m so glad you came,” said Cindy Mitchell Wednesday afternoon when a teenage shopper came in with a friend. “I’m going to find something really cute for both of you.”
Mitchell, Blacksburg High School’s marketing teacher, is sponsor of the school’s DECA (Distributive Education Clubs of America). Her club and the DECA chapter at Christiansburg High School are sponsors of the local Cinderella Project.
Sharon Thompson of Blacksburg, a YMCA employee, was the mastermind behind the atmosphere in the room.
“They’ve merchandised everything,” said Mitchell, complementing the decorating and displays created by Thompson and fellow YMCA employee Tamika Akers of Christiansburg. They used tiny white lights, gossamer wall drapes, mirrors, tablecloths and glittering decorations to create an elegant atmosphere for 18 racks of dresses and a steady flow of shoppers.
Table after table was topped with stylish strappy heels, evening bags and cologne. There were even refreshments of cookies and soda.
“Every girl going to prom should feel special,” Mitchell said.
Ten minutes after the doors opened there were two gowns already hung on the “sold” rack.
“Look at the shoes and pocketbooks,” Mitchell urged a customer. “Everything is free.”
The two DECA chapters collect and store dresses from donors in anticipation of prom season. Most often the gowns are gently used.
When BHS’s gym roof collapsed two years ago, “We thought we weren’t going to be able to do it [Cinderella Project] anymore,” Mitchell said. But workers at the damaged school helped haul out dresses that had already been collected and the YMCA provided storage space at their North Main Street location.
This year DEB, a shop in the New River Valley Mall, contacted Mitchell when they had a big sale. Their corporate office took off another 20 percent and Cinderella Project scooped up $5,000 worth of gowns for $700, Mitchell estimated. Teens in the two DECA groups raised money to buy the brand new dresses.
“Just go in and take a look,” Mitchell said on her way out the door to take a phone call. She was double tasking so that a fashion show, scheduled for Thursday morning at BHS, would go off smoothly.
“I can’t keep the mannequins dressed,” said Thompson. But every time a gown disappeared into the dressing room, she came up with another to replace it. “I’ve got to cover these naked bodies,” she joked.
“A lot of people asked what we were doing,” said Thompson about the two weeks she and Akers were working to transform the room and arrange the stock. “That brought a lot more donations in because it’s a good cause. I just wanted to see smiles on their faces,” said Thompson, explaining why she had gone to so much trouble decorating the prom shop.
Admiring a gown selected by a shopper, Mitchell looked for accessories to match. “This is what I love about Cinderella Project,” Mitchell said. “These shoes match exactly and they fit perfectly.” She even spotted an evening bag in the student’s color scheme.
“This is kind of a treat for me,” Mitchell said, explaining that she has two grown sons but no daughter to dress for prom.
“How late are you open?” a concerned mother asked. Her daughter was caught in traffic on Price’s Fork Road, but she made it to the YMCA in plenty of time. The store was open from 3 to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Friday.
“Which one did you feel the best in?” Mitchell asked another customer who was having trouble deciding between two gowns. “That was the first one you picked, and sometimes that’s a sign. It’s up to you. ”
“Hello, come in. You can just start looking anywhere,” said Akers, making sure new arrivals were comfortable.
This year Radford students were invited to shop at Cinderella Project. The endeavor has long served girls at Montgomery County’s four high schools, and both high schools in Giles County have been added over the years.
“We try to add each year,” said Andrea Sharpe, CHS’s DECA sponsor.
Sharp and Mitchell asked guidance counselors to give out invitations to as many as 50 girls in their school who might need some financial help in decking themselves out for prom.
Mitchell got the idea of starting a Cinderella Project from a former student who encountered the idea through her college sorority. She spoke to one of Mitchell’s marketing classes and the teens liked the idea.
“The girls are really excited to shop there,” said Sharpe last week. “They say, ‘Now I get to go to prom.’”