Prom Dress Charity In South Central Feeling Recession's Pinch

An L.A. organization that matches underprivileged girls with surplus designer dresses and shoes just in time for prom is facing the twin problems of increasing need and decreasing donations this spring.

Last year, the Cinderella Project, which works out of a youth center in South Central Los Angeles, outfitted more than 300 young women from the area for proms they may otherwise have been unable to attend for lack of appropriate dress. The youth center, A Place Called Home, has already had to lay off five of its 40 staff members after its annual budget was cut from $3.1 million to $2.3 million; concurrently, the center has seen demand for its services double. Attendance at the Cinderella Project is expected to rise by 20% on last year, but donors have not been entirely forthcoming.

Although you can also donate to the center online, funds for A Place Called Home itself largely come from philanthropic foundations, whose giving is a function of their stock portfolios' performances — which, sadly, means that in leaner times charities can be less able to fund good works in the community than when the economy is faring better. The Cinderella Project, however, largely receives its donations in the form of unsold clothing and footwear from retailers — something there's plenty of right now, in the wake of last fall's disastrous retail season and the continued softening of consumer spending. But many department stores and apparel companies are so short for cash that they would rather sell their extra stock to discounters like Loehmann's and Filene's Basement, and see at least some return, even if it's only pennies on the dollar, than give to the Cinderella Project or any of the dozens of other prom-related charities like it.

Payless has promised 60 pairs of shoes for the Project, and Jimmy Choo has just offered to make an undisclosed donation.

Zappos.com, whose revenue topped $1 billion in 2008, will not be giving to the Cinderella Project. "How should I justify giving you $1,000 and not giving the next $1,000? It's really tough," says Aaron Magness, the company's director of business development. Zappos is still doing other giving — but only to national organizations.

Offering needy young women a new dress and a pair of heels might not seem like the most practical solution to poverty on the block — after all, it's just one night — but nobody should underestimate the importance of the school prom in the eyes of a 16-year-old. Even a Teen Vogue editor gets it: "One night like this can literally change the way a girl sees herself socially," says fashion director Gloria Baume. Like it or not, we live in a society where all manner of social hierarchies and relationships are subtly reinforced through dress — and giving a young woman the means to be seen differently in the eyes of others can, more importantly, transform how she sees herself. But only if there are enough donations.

Cinderella Dream Gets Squeezed [WSJ]
A Place Called Home — Donate [APCH]
List Of Prom Charity Programs By State [Glass Slipper Project]

Photo of last year's Cinderella Project event via Wall Street Journal