Tracey Stewart pulls off her jeans and steps into a peach Vera Wang gown, the one she'll wear to her prom at West Side High School in Newark, N.J. "I am going to look," she says, "like a princess." It's a feeling thousands of girls have this year, thanks to programs like Catherine's Closet—which provided Stewart with her dress—that organize prom gown giveaways. Turning to individuals and corporations for clothing donations-and to volunteers to sort and transport the items—the programs make it possible for underprivileged students to attend the high school highlight. Without Catherine's Closet, which has given away 2,500 dresses since its creation last year, says Stewart, 17, "I wouldn't have gone because I didn't want to put my mother through that expense." The brainchild of Sandra Kessler, 55, of Wayne, N.J., a financial services provider and mother of two, Catherine's Closet pays tribute to Catherine Johnson, .17, an honors student at Clifford J. Scott High School in East Orange, N.J., who died in a car crash last year. After reading about the accident—which occurred only a month after Johnson had bought her prom dress—Kessler approached the dead girl's family. "What Catherine's Closet did for us," says Johnson's mother, Renee, 52, a school supervisor, "is keep Catherine alive and giving."
That was clear on a recent day as Stewart and classmates Shynell McCall, 17, and Stacyann Lewis, 18, stood in the offices of a trucking company owned by Kessler's husband, David. "This is the first dress I tried on, and the only one I wanted," says Lewis, in a royal-blue gown with spaghetti straps. "This is the day I've been waiting for."
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