When girls enter the Belle of the Ball showroom, they see rack upon rack of shimmering dresses in every color, size and style imaginable; they see dressy shoes and display cases filled with matching accessories. The cost of formal wear for occasions like prom and homecoming can be prohibitive, but at Belle of the Ball, all of this is free for girls in need.
The Belle of the Ball Project was founded to make the dream of attending these milestone events possible. An all-volunteer organization, there are no paid employees or board members. All monies donated go directly to helping girls receive that perfect dress for their dance.
“We want to reach girls who need a dress to go to their prom or homecoming,” says CEO Susan Schwartz, who founded the Belle of the Ball Project in 2003. “No girl should be denied the opportunity to attend her high school dance because of financial difficulties.”
Schwartz and her team are busy year-round maintaining and procuring the inventory in their showroom and getting the word out to girls who need a dress but may not be aware that such a program exists. They also have liaisons with administrators and counselors in the high schools and foster care agencies and group homes.
Schwartz, who was raised in a family of six children, says there often wasn’t enough money for extras like dresses for school dances when she was growing up. Though she was able to attend her prom, she remembered those days after she became a mother.
“One day I was looking at all the dresses in my daughters’ closets from events they had attended, and I thought, ‘There’s got to be a girl who could wear them.’”
Schwartz began with her daughters’ dresses and started collecting formal wear from family and friends. Once word got out, however, dress donations started pouring in from the community – some area stores supplied hundreds of new dresses, price tags still attached – and the Belle of the Ball Project was born. Now, with a 3,000-dress inventory, the group is able to provide dresses to several hundred girls each season.
All dresses are dry-cleaned at no cost by Sun Country Cleaners; all of their locations also take dress donations. Once the dresses are worn to a dance, they can be brought to any Sun Country Cleaners to be cleaned and returned, either to the girl who loaned the dress or to the Belle of the Ball showroom to be selected by someone else.
“We are grateful to be able to participate,” says Sue Huberti, customer service manager at Sun Country Cleaners, “and help provide dresses for the girls.”
Choosing a dress at the Belle of the Ball showroom is based on an honor system. No financial statements are required. Girls only need to sign a confidential honor pledge that they cannot afford to buy a dress.
“We want to make it as easy as possible for the girls,” Schwartz explains.
To shop for a dress and accessories for this year’s prom, girls and their families can visit the Belle of the Ball location at 1210 Holt Avenue in Clearwater between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. on April 11, April 25 and May 9.
“We want to help families and girls realize the dream of attending their school prom,” says Schwartz. “What is especially beautiful is when fathers bring in their daughters for dresses. They want the best for their girls and just light up when they see their daughters in a beautiful dress. Whenever we see a father come in with his girls, it’s ‘OK, time to break out the Kleenex.’”