The dreams of dozens of teenage girls were in a trailer on the edge of an Athena wheat field.
In the waning days of March, Weston-McEwen High School senior Christina Swafford and her parents traveled to Portland and packed 100 prom dresses into the back of their Honda Pilot. When they arrived home in Athena, they installed clothing racks and paneled flooring into a storage trailer, converting it into a walk-in closet that included a makeshift dressing room.
“We put it to way better use than storing ATVs,” Christina said.
The trailer is mostly empty on Wednesday: Christina gave out 30 dresses to her peers at Weston-McEwen and followed it up with deliveries to Hermiston, Pilot Rock, Ione and Pendleton.
Although this was the first time Christina had distributed prom dresses on such a scale, it was not her first experience lending out formal wear to other students.
Ever since she learned how expensive formal dresses could be during her eighth grade graduation, Christina and her mother began collecting dresses to lend out to local students who had trouble affording them.
The pair scoured thrift shops and clearance racks at department stores, adding them to Christina’s old dresses to assemble a small collection that was rented out to about 10 girls each year.
Christina continued her side project into her senior year as she started looking into scholarships to help pay for college.
That’s when she found out about Abby’s Closet, a Portland nonprofit that donates thousands of secondhand and surplus prom dresses each year in addition to awarding an annual scholarship.
When she informed Abby’s Closet about her own project in her application, the organization not only awarded her the $2,000 scholarship, but gave her 100 dresses from their warehouse to distribute to her local community.
When the Swafford family returned home with the dresses in tow, Athena’s first exposure to Christina’s new closet was an event in and of itself.
A visit to the trailer alleviated all sorts of obstacles that confront teenage girls trying to attend prom.
Dresses for a one- or two-time event can easily run hundreds of dollars, and finding good dresses can often take teens to out-of-the-way locales like Tri-Cities or Portland.
Additionally, plus-sized girls often have trouble finding a dress that fits.
“There were girls crying,” Christina said about the initial round of fittings.
Weston-McEwen senior Mary Bagdon is Christina’s friend and was one of the girls who wore an Abby’s Closet dress to the prom.
Mary had worn one of Christina’s dresses in the past, but for the most part, she reused a dress she bought freshman year for formal events to save on costs.
For Mary, finding a dress in the trailer was an unprecedented opportunity.
“For the first time, I could get a dress without looking at the price tag,” she said.
Christina estimated that 20 girls were wearing an Abby’s Closet dress at Weston-McEwen’s April 14 prom, which is a significant amount for a school small enough to hold its prom in the Vert Auditorium Club Room.
For its part, Abby’s Closet is happy with its choice.
“I’m going to give (Christina) credit,” Abby’s Closet co-founder Sally Egbert said. “We hit the jackpot when we chose her for the scholarship.”
Similar to Christina’s project, Abby’s Closet was founded in 2004 when Egbert’s daughter Abby was looking to put her old prom dress to good use as she was leaving for college.
Abby’s Closet eventually grew to a nonprofit that’s donated more than 60,000 dresses in its lifetime.
Its big event each year is the Abby’s Closet Prom Gown Giveaway, an April event at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland that gives away a dress to each girl who shows up with a high school ID.
As a part of her scholarship duties, Christina showed up to choose a dress of her own and cut the ribbon at the event.
But Christina stuck around after the opening ceremony ended, changing out of her strapless blue gown and helping other girls find a dress to their liking.
Egland also liked that Christina not only distributed dresses to Weston-McEwen girls, but also to students in the surrounding area.
The whole situation inspired Abby’s Closet to expand their operation and deliver dresses to communities that are well outside the Portland metro area.
This year, the newly established “Spreading the Love” program donated hundreds of dresses to other rural communities like Roseburg, Klamath Falls and Vale.
The dress donations have also inspired the Swaffords to maintain their efforts at making prom accessible.
Christina’s mother Mindy plans to use the remaining donations from Abby’s Closet and new donations the family’s received since then to continue lending out gowns to the community.
Mindy said she’s also heard that there’s a need for boys’ formal wear and covering prom expenses in general, and she’s willing to help out with it too.
Although she’s moving to McMinnville to attend Linfield College in the fall, Christina said she’s already volunteered to bring the next batch of Abby’s Closet prom dresses to Eastern Oregon next spring.
Contact Antonio Sierra at email@example.com or 541-966-0836.