MENASHA — Prom is a rite of passage for many high school girls and getting ready for prom is can be an elaborate process. Jill VandenOever, co-founder of Operation Cinderella, is somewhat of an expert in this area, having helped hundreds of girls put together prom ensembles over the last six years.
The mission of Operation Cinderella is to offer free events to low-income or at-risk students as a practical way to show love towards young girls who are vulnerable to the pressures of their culture. The non-profit organization hosts two annual events, the largest of which is Operation Cinderella Prom Dress Event, which was held this year on April 2 at UW-Fox Valley in Menasha.
VandenOever, along with her friend Mary Linden, started Operation Cinderella in 2011 after reading about a similar endeavor in a different area of the country. “I thought, ‘That is just about the neatest thing ever.’ Mary and I decided to do this as a one-time project through a women’s group we were involved with. It was such a need that we decided to continue it on our own, not through the group,” said VandenOever.
Around 300 girls, sophomores through seniors from 24 schools (not only in the Fox Valley but as far away as Milwaukee), who were referred to Operation Cinderella by school counselors, teachers and social workers, attended the event.
“We get donations of dresses, shoes, jewelry, clutches, a tiara for each girl and they get to come in and ‘shop’ for their prom dress, they get their hair done, makeup done, nails done,” said VandenOever. “It’s more than just (getting a free) dress. It’s a day of uplifting them, empowering them, showing them that someone does care about this need of theirs.”
VandenOever noted that each girl has a personal shopper, known as a fairy godmother, who helps them find the perfect dress. “Part of their job is to uplift the girl and encourage her. A lot of times the girls come in and their heads are down, they’re nervous, but by the end of the day they’re twirling in their dresses.”
A group of about 120 volunteers, including 50 fairy godmothers, runners, hairdressers, nail technicians, seamstresses, and professional photographers helped out on the big day. Beforehand, students from the International Club at St. Francis Xavier High School assembled gift bags to be handed out to each girl filled with everything from gift cards to shampoo and makeup samples.
This mission has turned out to be a year-long endeavor for VandenOever and Linden. They are constantly seeking donations, particularly for the dresses and monetary donations. “The local newspaper and the performing arts center did a huge dress drive for us this year. The rest come from either individuals (relatively new prom dresses) or we get a lot from area bridal shops,” she said.
“Many are brand new dresses that didn’t sell last season. We get them from this area and Milwaukee, Madison, Manitowoc. Elaine’s Wedding and Event Center donated 400 dresses this year. Alyce Paris, out of Chicago, donated over 120 dresses this year — all brand new, all sizes. Benjamin Walk Company donated 100 pairs of brand new shoes. We get a lot of monetary donations from companies so we buy shoes, too. Jewelry is almost all bought.”
Penny Biese, a member of St. Paul Parish in Combined Locks, and Brenda Baus of St. Pius X Parish in Appleton, head up the fairy godmothers. This was their second year helping with Project Cinderella and it was right up their alley. Both had careers in the bridal industry.
“It’s very cool the connection you get with these girls,” Baus noted.
Biese was hooked after doing that first event. “Seeing these girls come in — they’re a little afraid, they’re kind of embarrassed that they have to be here but when they walk in the door they realize no one is here to judge them. It is all about them for the entire day. They’re exuberant when they leave. If people could see the smiles and the joy that comes to these girls from this one-day event, I think it carries over for them as they move forward.”
“Working in the bridal industry, we know how expensive those dresses are,” added Baus. “A lot of these girls would not go to prom if it wasn’t for this. It feels great to be able to help them and be there for them that day, it’s such a fun experience.”
The other Operation Cinderella event is an annual empowerment conference at Liberty Hall in Kimberly. The next one is scheduled for Oct. 6. “We hosted 250 girls last year,” said VandenOever. “We had presentations and breakout sessions … with everything from colleges to suicide prevention to the YMCA.”
Operation Cinderella is such a gratifying endeavor for VandenOever. “We know every girl is going to be walking out with a fabulous dress. You see the girls crying tears of joy. It’s one of the sweetest things. You get way more out of it than you’ve ever given. For me, my faith grows when I do this, I feel closer to God when I’m serving people.”