- Operation Prom helps teens in need get formal wear for no cost
- Keren Charles collects dresses to donate to teenagers who can't afford them
- The nonprofit was formed in New York in 2005
When Keren Charles works with teenage girls in Atlanta as part of her job at Operation Prom, she relies on her upbeat, positive nature and styling expertise to get her through an occasional tough appointment.
"I admit there are some who are very specific and will not try anything other than what they want," Charles says, "Those I really have to work harder with and I'll try and find something to please them."
But Charles says many of the girls that come to her are so excited to just get a prom dress that they put away any preconceived notions.
"The majority of my young ladies that come in are open. They trust me, they trust my opinion and they're able to find something that they really like."
As was the case with 19-year-old high school student Zyna Williams, who came to Charles to find a dress a week before her prom.
Zyna is getting her dress for free because of the work of Operation Prom, a nonprofit organization that helps teens in financial need, or who are sick or disabled, get formal wear for no cost.
After selecting a few bright colors from her collection in her equally brightly colored private studio, Charles gently encourages Zyna to try on strapless dresses, a style she wouldn't normally choose.
"Again I always advise the young ladies that come in just to try on a dress because some things don't have great hanger appeal," Charles tells Zyna, "but once you put it on you will probably fall in love with it, so let's just try."
Zyna ended up choosing a short, white, strapless dress that day to attend the Alpharetta High School prom, with Charles throwing in accessories and a free hair and makeup session.
For Zyna's family, it couldn't have come at a better time. Zyna's adoptive mother, Yasaland King, says an expensive prom dress was just out of reach for her. She's a single mom with two other children and adopted Zyna, who has cerebral palsy, 2½ years ago.
They came to the Atlanta Chapter of Operation Prom last year, and this year are again amazed by the outreach of the organization. King says Charles and Operation Prom are doing a phenomenal job of helping parents who are not fortunate enough to spend thousands of dollars on the whole prom experience for their children.
Not having thousands of dollars for prom is something that Charles can certainly relate to. There was a time when Charles herself had to face starting over with very little.
In August 2005, Charles thought what many in New Orleans did at the time. That Katrina was just another storm so she's take a break for a while and visit friends and family in Atlanta.
It turned out to be anything but just another storm.
Because they left everything back home in Louisiana, Charles and her family had to make a new life in a new city.
"Coming (to Atlanta) and having to start over, it was a tedious experience for my family, but I've grown up with some very strong women so there's nothing that we can't tackle."
After Katrina hit and Charles finally got back on her feet, the economy dealt her a second blow.
Charles lost her job working as a corporate trainer, and says after those experiences she decided that she never wanted to feel like she was backed up against a wall with nothing to fall back on.
"I think with Katrina and moving here to Atlanta I always said to myself, I don't want to ever not have a second option."
Now styling girls like Zyna is just one part of Charles' busy schedule. She has a full-time job as the owner of Fashion Envy, a formal dress boutique in Atlanta. She is also a personal stylist and shopper.
The styling goes hand in hand with her job as the Atlanta chapter director for Operation Prom. Charles does "wardrobe audits" with her clients and encourages them to donate dresses that are sitting in their closets. She also rents dresses to clients for formal occasions and donates those, as well.
Charles says she got involved with Operation Prom so she could reach out to young women in the community and use her talent in the fashion industry to help people.
As a business owner and a "promologist," Charles is one of many chapter directors making a difference for Operation Prom.
Formed in New York in 2005, Operation Prom was born when founder Noel D'Allacco saw a need in her own community in Yonkers.
"I was an event planner and I was meeting with brides and bridesmaids who had these gorgeous bridesmaid dresses that they spent a lot of money on that they were never going to wear again," D'Allacco says.
This discovery inspired her to start collecting those unused dresses and donating them her alma mater, Saunders High School.
Now Operation Prom has several chapters across the country, each one with their own "promologist," a term D'Allacco says she came up with to describe the chapter directors because "they know everything there is to know about prom."
And Operation Prom's reach goes far beyond just dresses. This year they paired with the Men's Wearhouse to offer free tuxedo rentals for guys.
It's just another way D'Allacco and her promologists try to think of every angle that may be an added expense for teens.
"We want them to have the entire prom experience so it's not just the tuxedo, it's not just the dress. If we can purchase their ticket for them, we'll do that as well," D'Allacco says. "If they need transportation we'll try to seek out local limousine companies or taxi services."
Everything that Operation Prom gives to students is free, but it does come at a price. Operation Prom requires that teens who receive their services fill out an application showing that they're in good academic standing and are eligible to graduate.
D'Allacco adds that the organization does require that students demonstrate financial need, but she says she also realizes that with today's economy, many families are facing tough times.
"As long as they complete an application they can come to one of the dress giveaway events," D'Allacco says.
Preparing thousands of dresses across the country is a tall order for Operation Prom, so they hold fundraisers, work with retailers and rely on personal donations and a huge army of volunteers to keep afloat.
A night of glitz and glamour isn't reserved just for students struggling financially. Operation Prom also reaches out to a hospital in the Bronx, where each year they transform the cafeteria in to a dance hall. They give the 13- to 18-year-olds patients the total prom experience for one night including, dresses, tuxes, hair, makeup and dancing.
"Some of the patients there have told their nurses that they completely forgot they were in the hospital, completely forgot they were sick for that night they had so much fun."
D'Allacco says her all her chapters also work with their local Departments of Social Services. Through the social workers, Operation Prom is paired with students who are in foster care or are wards of the state to provide them with formal wear, as well.
Beyond just dresses and tuxedos for a high school rite of passage, D'Allacco says Operation Prom has always been meant for much more. When she created the organization, she decided PROM would stand for Providing Resources, Opportunity and Mentoring. To fulfill that goal, Operation Prom grants one $1,000 leadership scholarship per year and also holds school-supply drives.
For Zyna Williams and Keren Charles, the simple thrill of matching the right dress with the right girl is something they both leave feeling good about.
"It definitely made me feel really good because this is what our mission is," says Charles. "We want to make young ladies have a dream prom."