Meredith Scott is like a fairy-godmother to young women in Santa Barbara, helping to turn them into ravishing Cinderellas so they can attend what for many will be one of the most memorable nights of their high school years.
While Scott can’t turn a pumpkin into a coach or mice into horses, she can provide the teens with stunning outfits — some of them with designer labels such as Marc Jacobs — for senior prom night.
A typical nondesigner label prom dress can cost hundreds of dollars, putting it out of reach for many young women who want to be dressed to the nines at the prom. Add to that the price of dinner, tickets to the prom, transportation — a limo is a popular option — and the costs can skyrocket.
“It’s just a really, really expensive evening,” Scott said. “There’s a lot of people who can’t afford that.”
Thanks to the Assistance League of Santa Barbara, one of the biggest costs for young women — a prom dress — no longer is an issue.
The league, located at 1249 Veronica Springs Road, has more than 530 dresses ranging in styles, colors, fabrics and sizes that are available for free for prom night to any Santa Barbara County high school student.
“Many of the dresses have been worn just one time,” said Scott, chairwoman of Operation Prom Dress and who has been involved with the league for five years. “We have dresses here that are brand new and still have the tags on them.”
This marks the third consecutive year that the Assistance League has offered prom dresses to young women. The league’s “prom dress boutique” will be open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Saturday through May 17 and, for this first time ever, from 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesdays, May 7 and 14.
Lompoc High kicked off prom season April 5, with Santa Ynez High last Saturday and Righetti High next Saturday. May 17 is the biggest night with Carpinteria, Cate, Dos Pueblos, Laguna Blanca and San Marcos Highs all holding proms then (so be sure to make your restaurant reservations in advance). Bishop Diego High holds its prom May 18, and Santa Barbara and Santa Maria Highs finish up on May 24.
Scott, who was co-chairwoman of the league’s Teen School Bell, a program that provides new clothing to junior and high school students, organized the prom dress program after hearing of similar programs in other cities.
“I heard about one in Santa Barbara many, many years ago and I searched to see if it was still open but nobody knew anything about it,” she said.
She brought the idea to the Assistance League, whose programs in addition to Teen School Bell include Operation School Bell that provides clothing to elementary school students. The league, with about 175 members, gave her the green light.
The challenge the first year was to gather enough dresses, Scott recalled. The following year, the challenge was getting the word out to young women in the community. That has proven to be the same issue this year, especially since area schools will not allow the group to put up any posters advertising the program.
“We’re trying to put up posters at churches, the teen center, in PTA newsletters,” Scott said. “We’re just trying to figure out a way to get the girls to find out about it.”
The dresses are available to any young woman attending her senior prom, regardless of economic need. The only requirement is a high school ID.
One of those who took advantage of the program was Stephanie Newman-Smith, who graduated from San Marcos High in 2006 and now attends George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
“Prom is very much a quintessential high school moment,” said Newman-Smith, who is majoring in political science. “Most of my friends, however, did not feel that we really wanted to spend a lot of money buying a dress that we were sure to only wear once.
“I went with a group of about five friends to go look at the dresses,” she recalled. “The great thing about Operation Prom Dress was that we were all able to find great dresses and the whole experience was fantastic. The women who run it are incredibly nice, they had a huge selection of dresses to borrow, and going with my friends was a lot of fun.”
The dresses they picked out at Assistance League were never worn to the actual San Marcos prom. That was because Newman-Smith and her friends had to miss prom because they were competing on the high school’s mock trial team in a national competition.
“My team was sad that we missed prom so we decided to throw a second fake prom for ourselves and our friends about two weeks after the original prom that we all missed,” she said. “About 50 or so people attended.”
Those who borrow a dress for the prom are asked to have it dry-cleaned before it is returned.
“If they can’t afford to do it that’s no problem,” Scott said. “We’ll have them dry-cleaned so that we can bag them up and save them for next year.”
Among the offerings this year are 80 dresses that were collected by UCSB’s Delta Gamma sorority. Scott also advertised on the Web for donations on craigslist and sbfreecycle and is promoting the program on popular sites such as Facebook and MySpace.
“There’s nowhere where you can go and look at more than 400 dresses,” she said.
Despite Santa Barbara’s trendy and upscale reputation, Scott said programs such as Operation Prom Dress, Operation School Bell and Teen School Bell are essential.
“There’s more need here than you can imagine,” she said. “We find out every day about more people who need help.”
Local journalist P.J. Heller is founder of PhotoReporters.