GREENEVILLE, Tenn. -- Sixty-five young women showed up at Asbury United Methodist Church on a Saturday morning to pick out a prom dress.
Arranged by colors on racks, 400 sparkling dresses awaited their consideration. One by one, the girls found dresses to make them smile, then reached into their purses or pockets to pay the $10 cost.
One by one, the shoppers discovered their dresses were free of charge, a gift from two generous donors.
For the 16th year, Asbury United Methodist Church hosted its Prom Closet ministry March 19 for promgoers needing a dress without the typical huge price tag attached. Kim Brown, director of family ministries, said 63 shoppers found dresses in their sizes and colors: “Only two didn’t walk away with a dress.”
Apex Bank donated $500 and an anonymous donor gave $100 to the ministry so the first 60 dresses were covered, Brown said.
Barbara Serral, a member of the United Methodist Women’s group that started the prom ministry in 2006, said it was a joy to watch the girls’ faces as they learned their dresses were free. “They were surprised and didn’t know that was going to happen.”
Church members credit the late Barbara Lawson, then-president of Asbury’s United Methodist Women, for founding what was known as the “Blessed Dressed Ministry” after learning about a similar outreach in North Carolina.
“We knew a lot of girls had a problem affording a dress, so we decided to start collecting them,” Serral said. “But we thought they needed to have an investment in it – it shouldn’t be just a handout – so we felt like asking a nominal $10 wasn’t too much.”
Asbury collects formal dresses year round for the annual spring event, Brown said, asking that they first be cleaned and mended. Bridesmaids’ dresses often work as prom dresses, while wedding and mother-of-the-bride dresses are not accepted.
This year, Brown said she “purged” dozens of dresses from their inventory, after her daughter noticed “quite a few” had been around for too many years and were outdated. “We donated the purged dresses to high schools and the local theater,” she said.
Over the last two years, a “beaucoup” of fresh dresses were donated to the Prom Closet, as people stuck home during the pandemic cleaned out their closets, Brown said.
The pandemic caused the spring 2021 prom ministry to be an online affair, with a limited number of dresses offered (30). Before the pandemic, as many as 75 to 100 shoppers came to search through Asbury’s racks for the perfect dress, Brown said.
This year, numbers were slightly down because the Prom Closet was scheduled when both shoppers and volunteers were involved in a state sports tournament.
Over the years, volunteers have collected sweet stories about the families they encountered through the ministry.
“There was one year when a single dad came through with his daughter, right after she had lost her mom,” Brown said. “This year, there was a very tall young lady who had trouble finding a dress in her size at first. But then she saw a two-piece dress, brand new, and she fell in love with it. She tried it on, and it was perfect.”
Every year, the most-desired types of dresses change. In 2020, it was “sleek dresses with rhinestones,” Brown said. In 2021, “they were more simple and free-flowing.”
This year, the choices ran the gamut without any clear trends, Brown said. Dresses in sizes 22 to 28 were in especially high demand and were sold out.
A mother from Mosheim, Tennessee, who asked for her name not to be shared, said her 14-year-old daughter was excited to find a green dress in her size for her first prom. “She was very grateful and happy, and it was exciting for me, too,” the mother said. “There was a big selection of dresses left.”
The Mosheim mother said she heard about the Prom Closet ministry “through the grapevine.” Brown said shoppers come from as far away as Johnson City and Kingsport after learning about the ministry through local media.
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Holston Conference includes 850 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.