To many high school girls, prom is an essential rite of passage. But to those from low-income homes, it’s not exactly a given when the $200 price tag on a dress has to compete with groceries and power bills.
That’s why Susan Schwartz formed Belle of the Ball, a nonprofit that matches new and lightly used prom and homecoming dance dresses with high school girls who otherwise couldn’t afford them.
“Everybody has a dress in the back of their closet that’s not being worn,” Schwartz said.
She started out distributing a handful of donated dresses on a sidewalk in front of a Party City store in the Countryside area. The girls had permission to use fitting rooms inside the store.
The distribution location changed from time to time. One year it was a law office.
What didn’t change was how everybody wanted to help out.
“People came out of the woodwork to help,” Schwartz said.
Belle of the Ball now operates out of a storefront at Seminole Mall. It’s a 4,000-square-foot space that can hold 3,000 dresses. The giveaways take place in the weeks leading up to prom and homecoming festivities. Individuals donate, as do retailers such as Olga’s Bridal and popular Ybor City vintage store La France.
Girls come from all over the Tampa Bay area for the dresses – from as far as Lakeland, Pasco County and Ruskin.
“Nobody is turned away,” she said.
Monique Harris, 17, of Northeast High School, was among those who found a dress Saturday. “Not to sound cheesy,” she said, but finding a dress amounted to a dream come true.
“I am definitely excited to be able to go because I almost wasn’t able to go and now I am,” Harris said.
“It’s definitely giving these girls an opportunity like me to just enjoy it, not have to worry about it, and just be able to go.”
Steve Kornell, a social worker and St. Petersburg city councilman, said services such as Belle of the Ball give students something more than just an opportunity to attend an event. “Those little things – prom, grad night, extracurricular activities – those kinds of things engage (students) in school more. And when they’re more engaged, they do more academically,” he said.
Only a few Pinellas and Hillsborough county schools have not yet held their proms, and Saturday was the last time Belle of the Ball would distribute dresses this season. Twenty-seven girls found dresses at the shop on Saturday, Schwartz said. Throughout prom season, 271 girls received dresses from Belle of the Ball.
The Seminole Mall shop will reopen ahead of homecoming season in the fall. In the meantime, Schwartz is trying to get out the word by talking with people in the school systems, girls clubs and girls homes.
“We network like crazy,” she said. “You name it, we have a connection there.”