Voices

Nonprofit offers free prom gown of choice for special night

Katelynn Rutter, 18, tries on a prom dress at Julianne’s Prom Closet on Monday. The organization provides free prom dresses and accessories to girls who otherwise can’t afford them. (Colin Mulvany)
Katelynn Rutter, 18, tries on a prom dress at Julianne’s Prom Closet on Monday. The organization provides free prom dresses and accessories to girls who otherwise can’t afford them. (Colin Mulvany)

There has already been a flood of girls looking for beautiful dresses, but then there was a real flood.

When Julianne Sullivan arrived at Julianne’s Prom Closet early Monday morning, she found water seeping through the ceiling of her basement location and running down the wall. An icemaker somewhere upstairs in the building had malfunctioned and now Sullivan was frantically hauling racks full of beautiful ball gowns out of the room.

“These things happen,” Sullivan said later in the day. “I saved most of the dresses. Only 25 have to go to the dry cleaner because they got wet.”

Sullivan runs Julianne’s Prom Closet, a nonprofit organization that donates prom and graduation dresses to low-income girls who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford a prom dress. This is peak season for Sullivan and her helpers – her cell phone rings and buzzes constantly.

“We have about 600 dresses here, and we can fit from a size zero to a size 28,” said Sullivan.

The idea for the prom closet came to her in 2007. Sullivan’s best friend from college died, and soon after she lost another friend to cancer. Then her in-laws passed away.

“It was four years of a lot of sad, sad things happening. This became something good to do, something to look forward to,” said Sullivan, who’s a pediatric nurse at Sacred Heart and also a part-time faculty member at Gonzaga University’s nursing program. “I was also shopping with my own daughter and I realized there were no resources for girls who couldn’t afford a dress.”

And the closet is bursting at the seams with all types of dresses, from slinky and form-fitting to poofy and princesslike, in every color a girl could possibly imagine.

“I want the girl to leave here feeling comfortable and beautiful,” said Sullivan.

A prom dress easily runs more than $200. Low-income girls must bring a current student ID and a letter from a teacher or family friend who’s familiar with the girl’s financial circumstances when they set up an appointment with Julianne’s Prom Closet.

On Monday, 18-year-old Katelynn Rutter, who’s graduating from the On Track Academy, came with her older sister Chelsea Pearson and her mom, Arianna Martinez, in search of the perfect dress.

Quiet and perhaps a little shy about being the center of attention, Rutter let her sister take charge of the situation explaining what size she needed and what colors she liked.

But that’s not the way at Julianne’s Prom Closet.

Gently yet firmly, Sullivan homed in on Rutter asking the girl what style of dress she was looking for and about her favorite colors.

“I like pink. I’ve always liked pink,” Rutter said, quietly. “And I would like a poofy dress, but not too poofy.”

And off they went, searching for dresses, their conversation muffled by the gowns crowding the racks in the low-ceilinged rooms.

Rutter soon appeared in a gorgeous light pink gown, blushing while she turned around in front of the big mirror.

“Wow,” was pretty much all she said.

Mom chimed in: “That is really pretty.”

But it was just the first dress and soon Rutter got more comfortable modeling one after the other.

Sullivan hovered around her, checking for the perfect fit, suggesting a better undergarment, a small alteration or perhaps a different style of dress – before Rutter disappeared back to the fitting room.

“I always knew she would succeed,” said Martinez, who was getting a little teary-eyed. “She’s always been a reader and she always won a bunch of awards at school. And she wrote a children’s book for her culminating project.”

There was no doubt about it when Rutter came out wearing the winning dress: a choral ball gown with a fitted bodice and a full layered skirt.

“This is it,” Rutter said, standing up straight in front of the mirror. “This is totally it.”

It was difficult to tell who was beaming the brightest: Rutter, who found the right dress, Martinez, who saw her daughter in a prom gown for the first time, or Sullivan, who was adjusting the matching wrap on the dress.

“She looks so pretty,” Martinez said, covering her mouth. “She just looks so pretty.”



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