(Photos courtesy of Dawn Schultz and Operation Prom Girl)
More Than a Prom Event
How SoCal’s Operation Prom Girl is Empowering Young Women
By Sarah Komisky
It’s prom. You’re decked out in a beautiful dress and have your makeup just right. Your hair is loosely flowing down your shoulders and your heels sparkle. You’re stunning, radiant, glowing as you feel like a princess going to a ball. You are beautiful. You have value. But what happens when the dress comes off and PJs are put on, the makeup is washed, the hair is tied in a ponytail, and the heels are now traded for fuzzy pink slippers? Are we still beautiful? Do we still have worth? For Dawn Schultz and Linda Harris who spearhead the organization Operation Prom Girl, they want young women to know that value and worth go beyond the school dance.
Coming from broken homes and also never having the opportunity to go to prom themselves, Schultz and Harris wanted to give back by equipping women with the resources they did not have for prom, but also for life. Yet in addition to that, Schultz’s motivation to give back also came from her experience of being on the receiving end when someone helped one of her daughters go to prom.
“We now have been able to overcome and we see a need,” says Harris. “Don’t let the world define you and don’t let your circumstance define you because there is a God, and if you believe, you’re going to be able to push through.”
Beginning three years ago, when Schultz moved to Wildomar, California, she had a vision to collect prom dresses, gather a group of young women together, and host a garden party event at her house to help girls in the area who were financially in need and couldn’t afford a prom dress. These girls would not only receive a dress, but also makeup and hair services as well.
All this was prompted by her life experience. Schultz shares, “I didn’t go to my prom and I remembered how I used to like collecting costumes because I was still a little girl in my heart and I wondered where all that was taking me. I remember being a makeup artist and thinking, no matter who it was and no matter what the demographic, they all had a story to tell once they sat down in that makeup chair. Those women (including myself at various times in my life) were broken women. So I wanted to try to get a few young ladies together.”
Announcing it on social media, Schultz was hit with people who wanted to donate for the cause. Receiving 150 dresses in her first year, Schultz was impressed by the Christian and Non-Christian community’s desire to partner with this organization. In her second year, Harris came aboard after retirement and the self professed “enforcer” connected with the woman she calls “the visionary” to build an organization that gained momentum quickly. But at the core was their desire to help young women with what they call, “living behind the mask.”
Harris explains, “We have to teach these girls to love who they are from the inside out. And while we don’t necessarily have a salvation message at our event, we definitely open up in prayer and we definitely give praise and thanks to God.”
Schultz expands, “Media portrays women in a certain light. It’s giving women the wrong idea of who God says we are and who we really are in our hearts. So basically we move through life and we really have problems with our identity. We can look like we we’re built in a Tiffany box, but when we open up that box we find brokenness inside, and we don’t know who we really are. That bar (media) and that standard is set so high that women nowadays feel like they failed because they haven’t reached that standard and that’s not who we are and who we have to be.”
To help these young ladies, Schultz and Harris support the organization by self contribution, since they are in the process of becoming a non-profit. Additionally, they have been welcomed by the public school system and supported by generous donors who have according to Harris, “a heart to give.” Some of these donors include women at Camp Pendleton, the Mountain View Church of Wildomar family, various small businesses, NAFE (The National Association for Female Executives), senior citizens at a retirement community who helped bedazzle shoes for the girl’s and countless individuals including the 30-40 faithful volunteers ranging from high schoolers to mature women in their 60’s. They all donated various items like storage units, makeup, dresses, jewelry, flowers, and catered food.
Filling out a form online and going by the honor system, these young ladies register for the annual event that consists of pictures taken, lunch and dessert served, as well as services given such as hair, makeup, corsage and nails. Then there is raffle and the finale – dress selection. But in addition to that, young women (as well as their guardians if they wish to attend) can engage in workshops (such as resume writing and job interviewing skills) or get connected with Planet Youth that offers resources to help them get their GED or have job training. Young women can also listen to speakers talk about empowering topics like perusing their dream of college and not letting society define who you are. In addition, attendee’s can create vision boards with their goals to take home with them after the event.
“Our goal is that we want them to know that they’re valued. They’re loved. There are resources available and all they have to do is ask,” says Harris. “Prom is one day and you put on this beautiful dress and you feel beautiful, but we want more for them. We want them to leave inspired. We want them to leave motivated. We want them to leave hopeful. We want them to leave knowing that there is a God and they have a future.”
Although they work mostly with low income candidates and those in the foster system, Operation Prom Girl will not turn away anyone in need. This includes Military Balls, Quinceañera, and ROTC Balls for example. In Harris’ words, “No girl will be turned down. Anyone who needs a dress for an event will not be left behind.”
In this safe place, women can find a dress in their size ranging from zero to plus size because they want every girl at every size to have a good selection of dresses. The message they proclaim is that they are beautiful as they are. Additionally, these women want to prepare girls for the future where the dress doesn’t just become a mask, but a stepping stone to understanding their true worth and value.
Shultz shares, “Some of the girls had tears in their eyes. A few of the girls said this was the first time wearing a dress and they have not stopped wearing dresses since! Some of them said they were going towards more of a boyish manner in their lives, and this helped change their course. And the following year, one of the girls said she put on that prom dress and felt like a lady, and it changed her life.”
In its third year, Operation Prom Girl has collected over 800 dresses including 200 junior high dresses (not as formal and shorter in length) to help out 65-100 girls. With their new storage space in place, they hope to have girls come to their storage facility by appointment year-round to pick out dresses. Other goals include partnering with military girls in the Camp Pendleton area, hosting an encouraging/empowering fashion show, and working on 8th grade promotion of the organization in schools.
When asked what they are most looking forward to at their next event, both shared their thoughts with excitement.
“Instilling the hope in these girls,” says Harris. “If they walk away feeling like, ‘I can go to college’ or ‘I can go to a trade school’ or ‘just because my family doesn’t have money, I can work towards my dream.’”
Schultz shares, “For me I think instilling the fact that Christianity is sometimes not what it’s made out to be – first and foremost it’s about love. I don’t want to be the one that wasn’t there or didn’t give a girl an ‘out.’ There are a lot of girls committing suicide nowadays because they feel like they have no way out, or feel hopeless or helpless, or like they aren’t good enough, or can’t make the mark. I don’t want to be the person that doesn’t give this person a hand of hope.”
Find out more about this organization at: opromgirl.wordpress.com
And if you are local, come out to the prom event April 2nd (walk-in’s welcome).