‘It means the world’: pop-up provides formal wear students can afford

The price of formal wear can be daunting — especially for students who are off to college, university, or have a full-time job. 

That’s one of the main reasons why Prom Project Hamilton exists. 

“To be able to have Prom Project to dress up and feel good without having to spend hundreds of dollars, I think is great,” said Amy Leaming Cote, who is a co-organizer of Prom Project Hamilton and is the Executive Director of Hamilton Foundation for Student Success.

Prom Project, which was started eight years ago by a handful of educators for the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB), is a volunteer project that collects donations for formal wear that students can wear for prom or other school events.

Students who need a formal outfit for those events can show up and choose an outfit free of charge. Accessories, shoes and other products are also available to add on. 

This year’s event took place this past Saturday, where 125 volunteers made Prom Project possible. 

Cote (left) pictured with a Prom Project volunteer. (Amy Leaming Cote)

Because of COVID-19, organizers have had to push Prom Project back for two years. There was even hesitation this year until organizers got the green light from the HWDSB. 

Post-pandemic, many individuals have been unsure of what events can be held and which ones still need to be held off. 

Cote said, as they learned prom could still go on, they then had to work with a shorter timeline than they were used to — and made a few modifications including having to book appointments. 

Nevertheless, around 500 students in Hamilton showed up to Prom Project according to Cote, making the event as great of a success as most other years.

First starting at Delta Secondary School, the project later expanded to another location at Hill Park Learning Centre. 

But then in summer of 2019, they moved to another location at Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School after Delta Secondary School closed down and Hill Park Learning Centre became too small of a space. 

According to Cote, many donations they receive would probably end up in landfills anyway — which makes Prom Project not just affordable but eco-friendly. 

“To be able to find them a new life as well is great for our environment,” she said. 

Big differences 

After and prior to COVID-19 cancellations, the feedback Prom Project has received from students has been outstanding. 

“It’s really overwhelming how grateful people are,” said Cote. 

Cote said there’s a big difference in a student when they walk in versus when they leave. 

Upon entering, they often appear skeptical and unsure of themselves. But as they walk out with the right outfit, their outlook is changed for the better. 

“It means the world,” Cote said. 

Kelly McLaughlin volunteered this past Saturday for Prom Project and during its lead up. (Kelly McLaughlin)

While people tend to donate a wide variety of formal wear, Cote mentioned that the one item that is hard to come by is men’s shoes. 

“Women, for example, we’ll buy a pair of shoes to go with an outfit and that’ll be the time we wear them. Men will get one pair of brown shoes and one pair of black shoes and wear them until you don’t have anything left, kind of thing,” she joked. 

Kelly McLaughlin, a teacher with the HWDSB, agrees that the confidence was evident — but it took her time to convince her students to check out the pop-up. 

“I managed to get some videos before-hand, some close ups of the dresses,” she said. 

“They got in there at 9:00, and my toughest critics — all my girls, they got into these gowns and they were obsessed.” 

When she spoke to them the Monday after, she said many students told her they were “glad they went,” because they wouldn’t have been able to find outfits without the pop-up. 

McLaughlin, who volunteers for Prom Project every year, said she chooses to volunteer because she knows many students wouldn’t be able to find affordable formal wear without Prom Project. 

About 30 of her students showed up on Saturday, and she helped them hand-select their outfits for grade eight graduation. 

“I just want to be there for them and for other students who are in that same need,” she said. 

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