Episcopal congregation’s clothing drive gives away 1,000 dresses to outfit teens for prom

By David Paulsen
Posted Mar 14, 2023
Grace's Closet

This is the second year of Grace’s Closet, a prom dress clothing drive at Grace’s Episcopal Church in Rutherford, New Jersey. Photo: Susan Muller

[Episcopal News Service] A congregation in the Diocese of Newark made a big difference for hundreds of teenagers on March 11 when its growing clothing ministry distributed more than 1,000 free prom dresses to families from its northern New Jersey community and the neighboring New York region.

The ministry is called Grace’s Closet, and this is its second year at Grace Episcopal Church in Rutherford, a community of about 20,000 people just north of Newark and just west of Manhattan. After giving away about 100 prom dresses last year, organizers got an early jump on planning and promoting the clothing drive this year – and were happily overwhelmed by its newfound success.

“It was wonderful,” lead coordinator Susan Muller told Episcopal News Service by phone. “I had no idea how many people would come. You just don’t know, and donations were coming through the door during the event. … I’m still reeling from how much happened that day.”

What happened was nearly 500 promgoers and their families were welcomed inside at Grace Episcopal Church and offered refreshments in the downstairs parish hall while they waited their turn. A few at a time then were invited upstairs to a church gymnasium, where rack after rack of dresses were on display, with makeshift changing rooms available for trying on the dresses. Each visitor was allowed to take home one dress of their choice, along with a pair of shoes, jewelry, a bag and a wrap – all donated by members of the community, along with some suits and tuxedos.

“There are a lot of kids who would like to go to the prom, but they really can’t afford all that it takes to go to the prom, especially the dress or the suit,” the Rev. Karen Rezach, Grace’s priest-in-charge, told ENS. The church has about 200 members, with about 60 typically attending Sunday worship.

Rezach praised the work of Muller and her team of volunteers for expanding the clothing drive into an event that drew people from across New York’s five boroughs and as far away as Allentown, Pennsylvania.

“Everyone came together, and it was just such a magic event,” Rezach said. “People had tears in their eyes, families telling us their kids would not have been able to go to the prom without this.”

Grace’s Closet began in 2022 as an  idea presented to Muller by a friend, based on a perceived need in the community. Muller, a vestry member at Grace Episcopal Church, thought the church could help meet that need for inexpensive or free prom attire, and other church leaders agree to support a formal wear drive.

Muller and her small team of core volunteers, however, had less than two months to plan and stage the first event. They were able to collect several hundred dresses, but many of them went unclaimed and had to be stored in a rectory attic while the team thought through how to expand the ministry’s reach in 2023.

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This time, they started planning soon after Christmas and stepped up their promotional efforts, including on TikTok and other social media.  By partnering with businesses and other community organizations, they were able to collect a wide range of donated items, from clothing racks and hangers to the dresses themselves.

By the end of the clothing drive, donors had stocked Grace’s Closet with more than 2,000 prom dresses, as well as a wide range of shoes and accessories, and turnout at the one-day event was driven higher by prominent TV, print and online news coverage across the region leading up to March 11.

Some people arrived even before the event’s scheduled 10 a.m. start time, and they offered to help volunteers set up. Once the event got underway, the process remained orderly despite the large number of people, and their spirits remained upbeat throughout, Muller said.

“Dresses are so expensive, and my expectation was that anyone that came through that door could walk away with a dress,” she said, adding that the church also gave away dresses to some women who were in need of formal attire. “I believe everyone left there with something.”

Muller, 61, is a lifelong member of Grace Episcopal Church who recalled going to the prom twice, in 1979 and 1980. Her mother bought her a modest dress for $30 at J.C. Penny.

“It was just a very simple polyester dress,” she said. “We couldn’t really afford those big, expensive dresses; it was just something that my family couldn’t do. But my mother always made sure that we looked well.”

Muller carried those experiences with her in developing Grace’s Closet, and she was moved by the joy some participants expressed, both in donating their dresses and finding ones to take home. One woman told Muller she had dug up her old prom dress to donate and asked Muller to find a perfect new home for it.

That dress, pink and sequined, caught the eye of a girl on March 11, who tried it on and decided it was the one for her. Muller applauded the choice. “You have no idea how happy you just made someone who donated this dress,” she told the girl.

A family from Allentown, who drove more than an hour and a half to be there, was among the last through the door before the scheduled end time of 4 p.m. Volunteers were beginning to close up, as Muller helped the daughter find the dress she wanted. “They couldn’t have been happier. The girl was crying,” Muller recalled.

With more than 1,000 dresses left over after this year’s Grace’s Closet, the church is working with local schools and community organizations to donate some of them in batches. There are too many to fit in the rectory attic, so any remaining dresses will be put in bins and likely kept in a storage unit until next year’s sale.

“It’s just what church is all about, and it just could not have been a more blessed event that was also a blessing,” Rezach said.

It was a “labor of love” for Muller – “a joyous event” that she is looking forward to bringing back for promgoers in 2024.

– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.