CARBONDALE — Sparkly, long, elegant prom dresses, arranged in the colors of the rainbow, hang from clothes hangers secured to the walls of the living room of Noeshia Washington's apartment.

There is the tan one with the layers of tulle ruffles at the bottom, which looks olive green from a few feet away; the cobalt blue one with an overlay that cascades into a leopard print; the Size 0 one with the teal and orange rhinestones that is Washington's personal favorite because of the bling; the pink one with the heart cutout in the back that her friend had custom-designed.

One wall of her room looks like a much-heralded Chicago-area prom dress store.

"That's exactly what I want," said Washington, adding that a vast majority of the dresses did in fact come from Chicago boutique Peaches. "I want the girls to know they're not getting out-of-style hand-me-downs."

The girls she references are Carbondale, Marion and Murphysboro high school seniors, for whom Washington is collecting these prom dresses in a project she calls Southern Illinois Project Prom.

Her goal is to get these dresses — and 22 others, which are being stored at Rock Hill Missionary Baptist Church, which is supporting the project — off her wall and into the hands of those young women. 

She'd like to bring a smile to their faces, the same kind of smile she saw on the face of one of her high school friends, who was able to visit a prom dress giveaway benefit and get the perfect blue dress and matching shoes and accessories for her own prom.

Dresses to be given away in February

The giveaway date is set for Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018, at the Newman Center on the Carbondale campus of Southern Illinois University. The giveaway will start at 12 p.m. and run through 9 p.m. Volunteers are needed to help with set-up and break-down, and with helping during the young girls' shopping experience. She said a group of volunteers from SIU has already agreed to help the day of the event.

Additionally, four young women, from each of the three targeted high schools, will be eligible to win free hair and make-up sessions with local stylists, Washington said.

Washington, an SIU Carbondale senior who is majoring in social work, said she was inspired by her friend's experience with The Glass Slipper Project, which supplies prom dresses to young girls needing one.

Though Washington didn't use that agency for her dress, she and her family did benefit from a planted seed: It was her pastor at New Rising Sun Church, where she was a praise dance teacher and church volunteer, who gifted her a $600 dress and accessories for prom. Washington said her pastor was aware of the financial strain the event would have caused her own mother.

Her mother paid for her hair style, make-up and nails.

Networking supports projects

This project has also sent her into networking overdrive, as she posts about her project on her social media accounts and spreads the word through fliers and other venues. SIU's Fashion Department donated 20 dresses that it was given for an event but had not yet used. Dresses have been shipped to her from as far away as Texas.

A handful have come from her native Chicago, where she and her project assistants — fellow SIU students Laconda Pullin and Sierra Craig — have traveled to pick up the items. This weekend, Craig is back Chicago, visiting family and also picking up three dresses.

Washington said she mentioned her idea to a co-worker, Robin Johnson, who is a member of Rock Hill; Johnson suggested she share the idea with church leaders, who embraced it. They are allowing her to store the donated prom dresses at the church until the February giveaway.

Some of the dresses, like the ones hanging in her apartment, need a tuck here or a mending there, so Washington is also selling candy to raise money for a friend, a designer, to make the repairs. She is also repurposing some prom dresses to make them more fashionable.

Among the dresses hanging in her apartment is the dark blue one that her pastor gifted her.

Washington said on the day the prom dresses are given away, they will be given away on a first-come, first-served basis. The young girls must come with a parent or guardian — so that they can approve the dress that is eventually chosen — and their school identification. Though not requiring it, she is hoping the young girls who choose dresses then choose to donate theirs back to the prom project or to a similar effort.

Some of the prom dresses available are online on special Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SIProjectProm.

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Stephanie Esters is a reporter covering Jackson and Union counties.

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