Nonprofit Abby's Closet offers free prom dresses to high school students

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: VERN UYETAKE - Abby's Closet volunteer Lois Moll offers a preview of some of the gowns that will be given away at the nonprofits annual prom gown giveaway April 5 and 6.Ten years ago, a young high school graduate was cleaning out her closet before heading off to college. Abby Egland of West Linn asked her mother, Sally, what she should do with the pink dress she had worn to her high school prom.

“Why not give it away?” the two women asked themselves as they stood looking at the dress in Abby’s closet.

Today, that one dress in Abby’s closet has grown into the largest closetful of prom dresses in the state. On April 5 and 6, the nonprofit group Abby’s Closet will offer about 7,000 gowns, free of charge, to high school women seeking formalwear for their own high school proms or other special occasions.

Lois Moll, a Lake Oswego resident and a volunteer with Abby’s Closet, has sorted and boxed countless gowns. And she has seen thousands of girls find just the right dress.

“I do it because it makes me feel good to see a girl find a dress,” Moll said. “It’s amazing to see a girl try on a dress that is ‘her’ dress. Her body language, expression — I can tell it’s a good experience for them when they find the right dress. A lot of times, it’s the only formal gown they’ve ever owned.”

Looking at the racks upon racks of dresses in the group’s Tualatin warehouse space, it’s hard to imagine that any girl could fail to find just the right dress. Dozens of boxes hold even more tantalizing possibilities. Every box holds even more gowns, each checked for stains and tears and then sorted by color and size to make finding the right gown easier.

“There’s a dress for everybody,” Moll said. “It’s amazing how the styles vary — and how the girls vary.”

At the event, every girl who wants a dress can have one, at no charge.

“She just has to show her student ID,” Moll said. “She can be homeschooled. We don’t ask any consideration of need. It’s any high school student.”

In the past, busloads of girls have come from as far away as Salem and the Oregon coast.

“We have girls that spend the night. I think it’s kind of like a concert, back in the olden days,” Moll said.

Many of the collected gowns come from closets just like Abby Egland’s, as women and girls make room by clearing out dresses purchased for a special occasion like a dance or wedding and worn just once. Purchased new, many of the dresses would have cost between $200 and $300. Some of them originally would have cost much more, Moll said. Each will be offered for free at the April giveaway.

High school volunteers operate dress drives to gather donations too. At West Linn High School, senior Amanda Comings invited students to bring formal gowns to school. Comings serves with about 20 others, including students from Lakeridge, on a student advisory board for Abby’s Closet. After collecting dresses and helping to sort and size them, Comings and her fellow student volunteers will work at the dress giveaway next month.

“It’s an awesome way of giving back to our community. We’re all so privileged. I really like when somebody finds a dress that they love, knowing that I had a part in that,” she said. “There were tons last year that are engraved in my mind, how happy the girls were. It’s just awesome.”

Comings emphasized that the dress giveaway is open to all.

“Anybody can go. It’s not need based; it’s want-based,” she said.

She said the sheer number of gowns — and the variety of styles — is overwhelming, even for the volunteers who have worked with Abby’s Closet before.

“It’s hard to find a dress that’s unique,” she said. “Going to Abby’s Closet, you can find a unique dress there. We don’t normally get in mass numbers of the same dress. They’re completely different, every single one.”

Moll also used the word “overwhelming” to describe the giveaway event.

“Seven thousand dresses in one place is a lot of dresses,” she said.

She hopes that word will spread, so the even more young women will attend the giveaway this year.

“We want more girls to come,” she said. “We’ve kind of plateaued at 2,000 girls, and we’re not really sure why.”

The 10th annual Abby’s Closet prom gown giveaway will be held April 5 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and April 6 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Oregon Convention Center, Exhibit Hall D, at 777 NE MLK Boulevard in Portland. There is no charge to attend.

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