Spokane woman doles out donated attire for proms, parties

Sandi McKinley, right,  and her daughter Kendall are collecting new and nearly new formal dresses and accessories for girls who cannot afford dresses for their proms and other events. They have collected 200 dresses so far and have 300 to 400 requests. (J. BART RAYNIAK)
Sandi McKinley, right, and her daughter Kendall are collecting new and nearly new formal dresses and accessories for girls who cannot afford dresses for their proms and other events. They have collected 200 dresses so far and have 300 to 400 requests. (J. BART RAYNIAK)

Sandi McKinley isn’t a fairy godmother, but when formal gowns will be needed for special occasions, be it prom, Sweet 16 parties, homecoming, father/daughter dances or musical recitals, many Spokane and North Idaho residents will believe McKinley and her 13-year-old daughter, Kendall, are the next best thing.

With prom season gearing up, McKinley will be working hard to answer the prayers of cash-strapped parents who want their daughters to have a memorable evening.

Her efforts started five months ago when Kendall McKinley, a freshman at Gonzaga Preparatory School, went prom dress shopping with a friend. “They were around $800,” she said. “I was shocked.” When Kendall mentioned this to her mom, Sandi began thinking.

“We live in a nice neighborhood and Kendall gets to go to a great school and she’s very privileged with the things she gets but what about those who aren’t in such good situations and have fathers who are unemployed or moms who are sick,” said Sandi, who has a keen understanding of the latter.

“I’ve been through chemotherapy,” she said. “It’s been a really long journey. I think I’ll be OK but in the meantime, I want to do something meaningful.”

For Sandi, her prom, wedding and her daughter’s birth are “the things I hold near and dear to my heart” and, as with all who learn to appreciate life through the prism of illness, she wants to make dreams come true.

She discovered DonateMyDress.org, an organization that collects and distributes gently used formal wear to those who have a Cinderella dream but live on a chamber maid’s budget. It also provides a directory of donated-dress collection groups across the country.

“I looked up our region on the Web site and there was nothing,” she said. Soon, she found her niche; providing free formal attire to those who need it.

Next, Sandi called Spokane and North Idaho school counselors, churches and youth programs and told them of her plan. She went to local bridal and formal wear shops and purchased dresses that might need bead work or new tulle, which she repairs or replaces. The gowns were cleaned and the task of numbering and compiling accessories began. “Shoes, purses, jewelry, undergarments, hoop skirts, nail polish, sample perfumes, gloves, tiaras, barrettes, we need it all,” she said.

To date, 200 beautiful gowns hang on racks in the McKinleys’ living room, but the requests far exceed the available items. “We have 300 to 400 requests,” Sandi said. “I was definitely going toward the special-needs kids and then I realized every family has a situation, whether their dad is unemployed or maybe both parents are working but the added expense is still too much.”

She is adamant about the simplicity of her goal. “I don’t want this to be about money. I don’t want it to be based on anything. I just want to know a little bit about what their situation is either from them or a school counselor. Then I’ll tell them I have some beautiful dresses, free of charge. I just want someone to come in, find something, feel good about it, and have a really nice prom or whatever the occasion.”

And when the perfect dress is found? “It’s like a princess moment,” she said.

“They say, ‘This is the one,’ ” her daughter Kendall added.

“They can tell when they hit the right dress,” Sandi said. “They might try on five others but they’ll go back to that dress every time.”

Some might think supplying free formal wear is the epitome of a fairy godmother, but this Cinderella dream team wants more. Future plans include offering coupons to Glen Dow Academy of Hair Design, a professional photographer, corsages and dry cleaning services, but for now, with 200 dresses and 400 requests, the McKinleys need a miracle.

“We want to get the word out that if anyone has bridesmaid, prom or any formal dresses at all, we’ll take it,” Sandi said. And for those who have special memories tied to their dress, Sandi has a plan. “I’ll e-mail them a picture of the girl who gets their dress.”

“Or they’ll write a thank-you letter,” Kendall said.

“Yes,” Sandi said. “I want to make sure they write a little something to that person. So while they’re downstairs choosing a dress, I’ll have paper there and they can write it. I’ll make sure they get it.”

With a pensive look, Sandi eyed the racks of gowns. “I want to make sure I have enough dresses,” she said. “That’s a super scary feeling.” Kendall reached across and hugged her mom.

“This is a project of love,” Sandi said looking at her daughter.

“And we really need dresses,” Kendall added with a smile.

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