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When Melissa Marshbanks went shopping for her senior prom dress, she went straight to the clearance rack and picked one of the cheapest dresses she could find.
Although her prom was more than 15 years ago, that experience is still fresh on her mind. After volunteering with Louisville’s Prom Project last year, Marshbanks founded The Granted Grace Foundation with the hope of making prom an unforgettable experience for girls who are in the same situation she was.
The nonprofit foundation’s mission is to provide prom dresses and mentoring to underprivileged girls in rural areas of Kentucky.
Marshbanks said the foundation hopes to serve girls who receive free or reduced school lunch as well as those whose parents make too much money to qualify for assistance but can’t afford extras like prom dresses.
“That’s the group I was in growing up, so I get it,” Marshbanks said.
Marshbanks moved to Louisville in 2000 but decided to focus the foundation’s efforts in rural areas such as Taylor County because she said there are fewer nonprofit organizations in rural areas.
“My parents aren’t here anymore, but it’s a way for me to still give back,” Marshbanks said.
When Marshbanks contacted Awaken Boutique owner Brianna Burden about using her store as a drop-off location for donations, Burden said she knew right away what her answer would be.
“It’s a way to help girls get a pretty dress, feel beautiful and enjoy their prom,” Burden said. “It’s a great feeling to get to be a part of it.”
Campbellsville University also recently organized a prom dress drive and the foundation has received several donations from Louisville and other areas of Kentucky. So far, more than 300 prom dresses as well as formal shoes and accessories have been collected.
“Not all of the dresses are coming from here, so I don’t want the girls to think someone is going to recognize their prom dress from last year,” Marshbanks said.
Donations will be accepted through March 8. Marshbanks said there is still a great need for plus-sized dresses, but all sizes are appreciated.
Applications have been sent to Campbellsville Independent, Taylor County, Green County, Adair County and Marion County high schools. The application asks if the student receives free or reduced lunch, but this doesn’t determine who is selected to participate. Marshbanks said this information will be used when applying for grants in the future. Applications are due Feb. 28. While she hopes to provide every student who applies with a prom dress, Marshbanks said that depends on how many applications are received and how many dresses are donated.
She said she wants each participant to have several styles and colors to choose from to make the experience comparable to what they would find in a retail store.
The foundation has partnered with Campbellsville Christian Church, which will provide the location for the event on Saturday, March 15. Discipleship Minister Rodney Booe said when Marshbanks contacted the church about the prom dress giveaway, the congregation immediately agreed to get involved.
The church has collected more than 35 dresses and there is a growing list of members who are ready to serve as personal shoppers, provide basic on-site alterations and serve refreshments.
According to Booe, one of the goals for every member of the church is “to use our gifts in service to share Christ.” He said the foundation is living out the love of Jesus Christ in a very practical way.
“Something as simple as a prom dress could be the catalyst that someone needs to more fully understand how Christ cares about our every need, both physical and spiritual,” Booe said.
Each participant who attends the giveaway will be assigned a personal shopper to help them select a dress and matching shoes. As the participants wait their turn to shop, Marshbanks said she hopes to have volunteers available to offer hair and makeup tutorials.
“These girls may not have the money to go get their hair and makeup done so it would be great to have a person out there who can show them how to do a quick updo or how to apply makeup to make it look a little more dramatic,” Marshbanks said.
Each participant will then go home with her dress neatly packaged, as it would be in a retail store. A handwritten note with the contact information for her personal shopper will also be included. While the more obvious advantage for participants is a free prom dress, Marshbanks said providing mentors is the most important reason for the event. She said participants need a friend to offer advice and encouragement as they make decisions for life after high school. Marshbanks said, therefore, much consideration will be required for the selection of mentors.
Burden said she hopes the participants will make a lasting connection with the older women who can help them through their teenage years and beyond.
“A lot of young girls may feel that they don’t have anyone to confide in,” Burden said. “Even if they just have one person they can trust to build a relationship, that can totally change their life.”
While there is still much work and planning to do before the event, Marshbanks said the organization and its partners are determined to make this year the first of many successful prom dress giveaways.
“We want this to be a fun experience for the girls, where they leave feeling beautiful and ready for prom,” Marshbanks said.
To volunteer or refer a student to The Granted Grace Foundation, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the foundation’s Facebook page.
Dresses, shoes and accessories will be accepted at Awaken Boutique on South Court Street and 4 Seasons in Columbia through March 7.