Dress exchange program promises winter wonderland for young women

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With the Winter Ball right around the corner, three canned goods are all that’s needed for a fairy tale dress for any Johnston High School girl headed to the dance.

School dance expenses for a big day such as the Winter Ball – which will be held at the Crowne Plaza in Warwick on January 11 – can snowball quickly for young women. Haircuts and styling, makeup, jewelry, accessories, gowns, alterations and ticket costs can quickly add up to several hundred dollars. For some young women, these costs may cause them not to attend such events.

Pat Colardo knows how costly those formal occasions can be. Through her experiences with her two daughters attending winter dances, semi formals, proms and other events, she knows that the bills associated with these events can be more than challenging, especially during this time of year.

“When my oldest daughter was in the mode of getting a dress for the prom, her girlfriends would come over and they would say ‘We’re not going, it’s too expensive,’” said Colardo. “I said that just really shouldn’t happen. These kids really should not miss a once-in-a-lifetime event.

To help take the sting out of one of the biggest dance expenses – a girl’s gown – Colardo created Mrs. C’s Dress Exchange at the high school. She began soliciting dress donations from the community and businesses, such as Stefania’s Boutique on Oaklawn Avenue in Cranston, to create a wide selection of styles that would appeal to any girl. Through her efforts, her stunning dress collection now numbers nearly 300.

“Our dress exchange has expanded and we have a lot more interest this year, I think, than we had last year,” said Colardo. “We have some beautiful gowns for girls to choose from.”

Colardo said that the majority of her dresses are brand new, with price tags still on them. The dresses are stored at the school in a special closet, where girls can make their selections for their big day. Every Tuesday, Colardo and teacher Stacy Landi roll the selection of dresses to the high school library and invite the girls of the school to view them, try them on, and borrow them for the event.

“If they like the dress, two weeks before the event they can pick it up. Before they pick it up they bring three canned goods as a donation to the Food Bank,” said Colardo. “They’ll take the dress, and they’ll have it for two weeks.”

Along with food items, students must sign a contract before obtaining a dress. They agree not to make permanent alterations and must return the dress within three weeks of the event it’s borrowed for.

Colardo has an arrangement with Vaughn Cleaners in Smithfield. Typically, it costs more than $50 for a dress to be cleaned. However, girls are given a special voucher for cleaning before returning the dress to the Exchange, which brings their cleaning costs to only $10. Dress returns ensure the success of the program for future students.

“For three cans of food and a $10 cleaning charge, they’re getting a current, absolutely gorgeous dress,” said Colardo, who said some of the dresses in her exchange are valued at upwards of $500. “I want this experience for the girls to be like they’re going into a boutique and trying the dress on and feeling like a million dollars.”

The school’s PTO and the Johnston Education Foundation have generously donated dress storage racks for the endeavor. Colardo said that Landi has been an exceptional help with the program, and the pair provide feedback and suggestions to the young women to help them find the perfect dress for their needs.

Mrs. C’s Dress Exchange offers gowns to any girl at the school who wants or needs one, regardless of their financial status. Colardo also hopes to possibly expand the program to include boys at the school in the upcoming years and hopes to establish a suit exchange program.

However, her message to young girls is clear.

“Do not miss a once-in-a-lifetime event because you can’t afford a dress. Let us help you get there; that’s why we’re here,” said Colardo.

Girls interested in obtaining a dress may contact Ms. Landi or school administrators. Those interested in contributing dresses to the Exchange may contact Pat Colardo at her Johnston-based business, Richard’s Hair Studio, at 943-8741.

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