Most of Monnie Smith’s clients have a sad story to tell.
But when they leave Smith’s house, they have traded their story for a smile and a pretty dress for prom.
The Ada woman runs Gowns for Grace, a nonprofit organization that loans dresses to girls who need an outfit for prom or another special occasion. She owns a variety of short and long dresses, all of which are available for borrowing.
Smith had always wanted to help girls who couldn’t afford a pretty dress for prom, but she decided to wait until her daughters were grown and didn’t need their party dresses anymore.
Three years ago, Smith turned her dream into Gowns of Grace. She bought her first 60 dresses from the local Goodwill store and Ada residents, then began loaning them to girls who needed to borrow an outfit for their high school dance.
As word of mouth spread, people began donating gently used dresses, shoes and even jewelry to Gowns of Grace. Today, Smith’s collection contains more than 800 dresses.
At first, Smith thought business would drop off after prom season ended. But she later realized that pretty dresses are always in demand.
“It is pretty much all year round, with all the dances that are going on,” she said. “There’s father-daughter, Valentine’s, Christmas, Homecoming, 4-H king and queen. There’s a lot of those dances now.”
‘They always find one’
Prom dresses in all sizes and colors hang from a clothing rack in Smith’s living room. Another selection of dresses is displayed on a staircase, and still more gowns are placed on hangers on a closet door.
Some of the dresses are simple but elegant, while others are trimmed with beads or sequins. All of them are available for borrowing.
Girls who need to borrow a Gowns of Grace dress can send Smith a private message through Facebook. When Smith receives the message, she adds the girl to the Gowns of Grace group and tells her to read a post listing the nonprofit’s rules.
The rules include a list of the information Smith needs from the client, such as her jean and shirt sizes.
“I need to know what size jeans and shirt they wear because I will take their jean size and go up two sizes, and that’s what size dress they’ll usually wear,” she said. “It works every time, almost.”
Smith also asks her clients to list two or three color choices, the dress style they want and the date they need the outfit. She sees clients two nights a week by appointment only.
Before each appointment, Smith pulls three or four dresses from her collection. When her clients arrive, they try on the dresses and study their reflection in the mirror.
“Some of them have the hardest time, because they love so many,” Smith said. “They’ll stand there and decide which one they might want. They’ll ask whoever brought them what they think, and they’ll send pictures to a friend and see what they thought.
“So while they’re doing that, I’m usually asking the other person to come on in. Because sometimes the girls take longer. They’d try on every one if I let them.”
Smith wants to make sure her clients are happy, and her feelings aren’t hurt if someone says she doesn’t want to try anything on.
“Because they have this one perfect dress in their head, and it’s the one that is probably three (hundred) to four hundred dollars,” Smith said. “And I just say, ‘Please try some on, because they look so much prettier on a girl with a smile than they do hanging on a hangar.’ And they always find one.”
Smith said she knows when a girl finds the right dress because she is smiling and excited about wearing the outfit to prom.
When Smith started Gowns of Grace, she trusted clients to return their dresses without being asked. But she soon realized that some clients don’t return their items right away.
Smith said her clients fill out a form when they borrow a dress so she can keep track of what she has loaned out. Clients are supposed to return dresses within a week after their event, but they sometimes take longer.
Smith also asks her clients to have their dresses cleaned before bringing them back, if possible.
Making clients happy
Some of Smith’s clients are staying at a youth shelter, and some of them are living with their grandparents because their parents aren’t around. Other girls just can’t afford to buy a pretty dress for prom.
Whatever the situation, Smith does her best to help her clients find a gown they like. Her ultimate goal is to make them feel like a princess for one night.
Smith said her clients may not be happy when they arrive at her house, but they are all smiles when they leave with the perfect dress. For Smith, that’s the most rewarding part of the evening.“I know that they’re going to go to their prom or their special event with their head held high, and they’re going to look beautiful,” she said. “That just means a lot to me.”