Janessa Usselman started to lose interest in school in Grade 8. When, in Grade 10, she discovered she was pregnant, the Calgary teen dropped out. “I thought I could work for minimum wage, care for my baby, and everything would be fine,” recalls the soft-spoken 19-year-old. “But something changed in me when Syrus was born. I wanted to give him more stability.”
So she went back to high school, and she graduated in the spring of 2008. But after paying child-care costs and living expenses while attending school full-time, Usselman couldn’t afford a dress for the graduation banquet.
Not, that is, until Lynne Herman and the Cinderella Gown Project came to her rescue. Herman, a fashion-studies teacher at Sir Winston Churchill High School in Calgary, started the project in June 2004 after hearing about a similar effort in the States, for which volunteers collected, repaired and distributed gowns to graduates in financial need. Herman was always on the lookout for novel sewing projects for her students, and this one would enable the high-schoolers to help others in the community while fulfilling the goals of the fashion-studies curriculum.
To get things started, Herman placed an ad in the local newspaper in October 2003, seeking used grad dresses. She hoped to get a few that were in good condition; she received 600, in various states.
Several months later, a committee of teachers, school administrators and business sponsors met to begin planning in earnest for the first “Cinderella Gown Day,” to be held on April 17, 2004, at a hotel in downtown Calgary. Fashion-studies students sorted, repaired and updated the gowns, while art students designed hand-drawn invitations for each girl who would participate.
On the big day, 120 girls-identified by guidance counsellors from almost every high school in Calgary as those who would most benefit from the project-were ushered into the ballroom. Every girl had a “fairy godmother”-a female volunteer-to help her choose a gown, makeup and accessories. By the end, each girl was outfitted from head to toe in graduation finery. “It was one of those goosebump happenings,” says Herman. “Girls were traipsing around, trying on dresses, and everyone was smiling and crying and hugging.”
Since the project’s inception, almost 800 starry-eyed young women have been kitted out for their grads. More than 150 volunteers a year are involved, and the list of sponsors and corporate partners-who provide services, resources and their time-gets increasingly longer. Last year, more than $30,000 in cash and donated materials was collected.
For Janessa Usselman, looking back with pride on the hurdles she’s overcome, graduation holds special significance. Knowing that others in the community cared enough to help her celebrate this milestone has been a source of great encouragement. “Now I have pictures and memories of my graduation forever,” she says. “I’m so grateful for that.”