Two Whitewater churches, Congregational United Church of Christ and First Methodist Church, wanted to lend a hand. This is their third year of offering racks and racks of gently used prom dresses and clothing for other formal events for free to anyone who needs them.
"A lot of these kids couldn’t possibly go to prom if they didn’t have a dress to wear," said Kay Robers, a coordinator for the Community Clothes Closet, a joint church venture run out of the Congregational UCC.
People can browse the racks, try on the clothing and take home their choices at the Spring Fling on Wednesday, April 6, 2016 and Wednesday, April 13, 2016 from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. in the second floor of the church, located at 133 S. Franklin St. in Whitewater.
The setup has touches you might find at an upscale department store. There are dressing rooms and mirrors. Two volunteer seamstresses are on hand for any minor alterations to the clothes.
There’s plenty of swag like bracelets, headbands, purses, even nail polish -- all free. There are rows of shoes. Some, like the pair of white dress shoes with three-inch heels, have never been worn. There’s also menswear, like shirts, suits, dress shoes.
And there are dozens of fancy dresses in a rainbow of colors and styles: backless, strapless, corseted, sparkling with sequins, vintage and ultramodern.
"When the girls come out of the dressing rooms with the dresses on, everyone gets really excited," Robers said. "We hear a lot of ‘You look wonderful’ and ‘You look beautiful.’"
The project, first called Prom Possible, was suggested by a University of Wisconsin-Whitewater student who was a volunteer at the Community Clothes Closet three years ago.
"That year we went to the university and took donation barrels into all the dorms," Robers said. "We started out with 175 dresses."
Now volunteers pass out fliers and encourage people to post them in Laundromats, churches and schools to get noticed.
There are no restrictions to get the clothing. Volunteer Pat Miller said people have come from Whitewater, East Troy, Lake Geneva, Burlington, Elkhorn, Delavan, Janesville, Jefferson, even Crystal Lake, Illinois.
"A lot of times you get stories," Robers said. "We had one girl who told us she couldn’t go unless she got a dress, but her parents had gotten a divorce and they were losing their house. They didn’t have any money. The volunteer who was working with the girl told me, ‘I had to walk away from her because I was going to cry.’"
The prom dresses -- collected year-round and stored in large donated wardrobe boxes with racks to keep them dust-free -- are an extension of the Community Clothes Closet, which began 14 years ago with one room and a table at the Congregational UCC. Today it’s grown to fill almost the entire second floor of the church.
Rooms are divided into men’s, women’s, teens, children’s and infants’ clothing, plus a surprising number of additional categories, such as clothing for dogs, bathing suits and uniforms.
"We even get lingerie," whispered volunteer Nora Robers, Kay Robers’ granddaughter.
Kay Robers said the quality of the donated items is exceptional.
"When people come in for the first time, you can tell by the look on their face they haven’t been here before," she said. "If somebody tells you that we’re going to give you free things, this isn’t what you’d expect to get. But if you think about it, the people who shop at Wal-Mart and Shopko aren’t the ones who get new clothes every year from Eddie Bauer, L.L. Bean, The Gap and Coldwater Creek. The things we get are beautiful."
Other non-clothing donations include linens and dishes. There’s also a corner filled with toys, which doubles as a place for kids to play while their parents browse.
Robers said the organization recycles as much as possible. Wool coats have been used in making braided rugs. Unusable T-shirts are sewn shut on the bottom and transformed into shopping bags.
The Community Clothes Closet is open four times a month from 8:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. on the first and third Saturdays and the Tuesdays preceding them.
The closet is closed from the second week in June to the third week in August.
The organization is run by a crew of volunteers, ranging from church members and high school and college students needing community service hours to retired seniors in their 80s.
Robers said she sees a need for the closet’s services, from the Spring Fling and a backpack giveaway every August to a socks and underwear drive for kids.
"You hear things that just melt your heart. At the first year we did the socks and underwear event, one little boy said to us, ‘You mean I get to pick my own underwear?’ Now if you’re 7 years old and you can get excited about having new underwear ..." she said, her voice trailing off.
Robers said people can drop off donations of formal wear or any clothing at the church during the week, from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., during the operational hours of the Community Clothes Closet, or by calling 262-379-0187.
"When you look at your closet, isn’t it pathetic what you have in it?" she said. "I counted one day, and I had 16 white tops in my closet. Is there any reason for that? None. And when you think of these people that don’t have much, it makes you wonder. Do we really need all those things?"
At a glance
What: Spring Fling, formal wear available for various spring events, open to all, everything is free.
When: Wednesday, April 6, and Wednesday, April 13, 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Where: Congregational United Church of Christ, 133 S. Franklin St., Whitewater, second floor.