Project Prom: Thinking Outside the YA Library Programming Box

Five years ago a former co-worker and I started a teen program we called a Prom Dress Swap. Like most women in their mid to late twenties, I’d amassed a number of formal dresses from weddings and high school banquets that I never wore anymore. They were in great condition but just hanging in the closet taking up space when I thought “why not create a program out of this at the library?” And Project Prom was born, although it didn’t take on that official title until 2014.

Our first year was filled with uncertainty – would anyone come? Would we get enough donations? It started off slow at first but then the Indianapolis Star got wind of the program and the donations began to pour in. We set the program up in our tiny community room at the library and bought cheap garment racks off Amazon. Our branch manager brought in dressing room screens from her theater group and we used mirrors from other staff members who loaned them to us for the weekend. The day of the program, the line of girls was out the door and around the building! I think we had close to 100 come that first day and most found something to wear to prom. My co-worker and I agreed that we should do it again and thankfully the library I work for has a large climate controlled barn, so any leftover dresses went to storage until the next year. Sadly, my co-worker left the system before the Spring of 2014, so I was on my own to plan and implement the program in year two.

We have four branches in my system, so I decided for year two that I would host it at a different branch and in the years that followed rotate it so that eventually each branch in our county would have a chance to hold the program, reaching all of our served communities. However, the response for year two was even greater than anticipated so by the time year three rolled around, I had expanded the event to three days at one location then three days at a second location all in the same year.

By this point, I had developed a relationship with several consignment shops who served as donation locations for our program and gave us any prom dresses that didn’t sell during their consignment period. These were NICE dresses too – many came from upscale prom shops in the area and were well over $500 new.

I also decided it was time for a catchier, more clear name change. By calling the program a Prom Dress Swap, it implied that to receive a dress, you had to donate one. That wasn’t my original intention for the program but it was confusing to the girls who wanted to attend, so after consulting our Young Adult Programming Committee, we settled on the name Project Prom.

In 2015, I added another partner – Sophia’s Bridal, Tux and Prom and started collecting prom attire for guys! The consignment shops both closed down in 2015, so Sophia’s became a crucial partner for us and also served as a donation location. Over the past couple years they have offered different promotions for their customers who donate (like $75 off a new dress when bringing in a dress for Project Prom). This year they gave away a free tuxedo rental to one of our teen guys who couldn’t find something at the program.

For a time we also had a local seamstress making custom dresses for girls who couldn’t find a dress that fit perfectly, but she eventually got too busy to continue but it was a wonderful donation of her time for the years that she was able to participate.

The number of donations continued to grow and eventually our cheap Amazon racks broke and the program needed something more sturdy and permanent. Around the time we needed something new, the Deb store in the mall went out of business and started selling all their store fixtures! Our library director gave me the OK to buy some and I purchased four commercial grade round garment racks for $25 each which I use during the program and for storage the rest of the year.

I also got a Facebook page up and running for the program which I try to keep active throughout the year. This is where we share all the photos from the program, create events and share any media attention that the program gets. I’ve added our other teen librarians as administrators to help with responding to any messages we get and also so they can add photos on event days since I am unable to staff all 6 days each year.

That brings us to present day – this year has been bigger than ever before and we’re still not done yet! Fox 59 interviewed staff about the program and I also appeared on WISH-TV’s Indy Style program with this year’s partner Zeta Tau Alpha. We had a whopping 217 people attend over our first three days and we gave away about 100 dresses plus many of our items for the guys. The program will be held again in April at another location and I’m hoping for a record breaking turnout there as well.

Somehow we’ve gone national and have had calls from Washington DC asking if we have an affiliate there that has the same program and we’re getting dress donations shipped here from Dallas, TX. I’m incredibly amazed at the growth and so happy that we’ve helped hundreds of girls and guys over the past five years get outfitted for prom!

It really exciting to see how Project Prom has grown and not only is it a wonderful service that a library can provide to their community but it also proves that libraries are still relevant in a technology driven world. If you are a librarian thinking about starting a similar program, please feel free to contact me – just click on the e-mail link on the Facebook page and it will send an e-mail directly to my work account. And if you are already doing this kind of program in your community, I’d love to hear what’s worked for you and suggestions on how we can make our program even better!

For anyone thinking of starting their own Project Prom, I leave you with some tips/advice/cautions based on my experiences the last five years:

FIND A COMMUNITY PARTNER. This is crucial. We didn’t have one the first year and it worked out OK but if not for the local businesses that helped us starting out, we would not have been able to build up the dress selection that we currently have.  (This year I estimated about 400 dresses)

Get other staff on board to help you out. Trust me, one person cannot do this alone. It’s literally a full time job on top of your other librarian duties. I get calls year round from businesses who have dresses to donate and it’s hard to find a time to go pick them up. If you have a team helping you, it will go much smoother, take some of the burden off you and keep you sane. I’m working to find a dedicated team for next year that I can consistently count on.

-Look for grant/funding opportunities. This year we are getting Kohl’s Cares volunteers to help with set-up at our second branch. If a minimum of five Kohl’s employees help for three hours, we will get a $500 donation. That money is much needed as we’re out of room on our current garment racks and could use a couple more.

-Utilize volunteers. Our partners this year were from Zeta Tau Alpha and they were a life saver. The program took four hours to set up in our community room and they were there to help with that and staff the program over the weekend. You will be surprised at how long it takes to take dresses out of garment bags and sort by size.

Social Media is your best friend. One of our photos from this year was viewed over 1,000 times on Facebook. That’s 1,000 people who learned about the program that may not have otherwise know about it. Keep your Facebook page active year-round, even if it’s just to post to say you’re planning next year’s event and details are coming soon. I like to post pictures of dresses and shoes that I’ve styled as they come in and that gives people an idea of what they can find at the program. We also have photo albums of the girls/guys who have found something to wear and many will tag themselves in them so it’s a fun interaction for the teens too.

-Don’t be afraid to say no. For the first few years, I would drag the dresses out of storage for girls who couldn’t make it to the program. That got tedious and tiring, plus it was hard to find a time to schedule them to come in to try on. So by adding extra days, I had hoped to eliminate that problem. It did for the most part but some still miss it and you just have to say no. If that happens, it’s good to be aware of any similar programs in your area that way you can refer them elsewhere at least.

-Be prepared to make trips to Goodwill. Unfortunately not every dress that’s donated is acceptable. We sometimes get ugly velvet dresses from the 80s or badly stained ball gowns that can’t be cleaned. People mean well but teens still want something stylish even if it’s free. Just smile and say thanks and then bag it up for Goodwill.