PORTAGE, Mich. — It’s a magical time of year for students across the country. Prom.
A high school ritual that often includes fancy dresses, limos and lots of glam. But for one group of students in Kalamazoo County, just getting to go to any dance is a big deal.
WoodsEdge Learning Center in Portage is a special education center-based school that serves students from ages 3 to 26 who are severely mentally and physically disabled.
Their families are weighed down with care and medical bills, so prom isn’t exactly a top priority. This year, the school decided to turn to social media to get some help.
“I only expected to get like 4 or 5 dresses,” said Katie Finley, a paraprofessional at WoodsEdge, who made a post on Facebook back in March.
Fox 17 jumped on board and quickly put it to our viewers to help. The response was overwhelming.
“I’m a Schwans man in Portage and can give my time for a fundraising sale,” wrote one poster.
“I have 3 prom dresses they may have,” wrote another poster.
“It just blew up. It was amazing,” said Finley.
Every spring, the school organizes the dance for students and they do all the fundraising themselves.
“Our students can’t afford to do that,” said school nurse and organizer Kim Wright.
“It’s also difficult for parents to take students out and about to buy dresses. It takes a lot off the parent’s shoulders.”
The staff plans to transform the school gym into a dance hall with a drive-in movie theater theme for about 60 students, many who are in wheelchairs.
Once FOX 17 realized how many people wanted to donate dresses and other items, the team set up three donation sites, including the YMCA and RiverTown Crossings Mall.
“I think that’s just one of the great things about society. We all want to help in West Michigan. Everyone wants to help,” said RiverTown Marketing Director Amanda Gielczyk, who helped take donations.
One family with ties to West Michigan saw the post online and mailed a dress all the way from Hawaii.
The FOX 17 crew spent an entire day heading to the drop sites to collect the donations. It wasn’t just people at home bringing in dresses, jewelry and dress clothes, but several business owners also wanted to pitch in when they found out about the effort.
“It’s like your Cinderella moment when you are at that age and that means a lot to us and we are happy to do it,” said Maggie Torongo, owner of the Renee Austin Boutique, located at 442 Bridge St. in Grand Rapids.
The shop donated several new designer dresses with no shortage of flowers, sparkle and style.
“We feel we have really great dresses and we want girls to feel beautiful from head to toe and if a dress like this can do that for them that’s important enough for me to do that,” said Torongo.
Becker’s Bridal, located in Fowler, contacted FOX 17 after hearing about the Pay It Forward campaign at FOX 17 and had a room filled with never before worn gowns just ready to be swooped up.
“When we got the call I wanted to jump on it right away,” said Becker’s Bridal owner Shelley Becker Mueller.
“It is their day to be queen. If we can satisfy that for a family who maybe is in need that has other expenses and can’t afford this on their own, then I would just more than love to so they have that opportunity,” she said.
Altogether, FOX 17 collected more than 100 gowns, along with dress shirts, ties and accessories for the cause.
The crew delivered them to their final destination ahead of prom and the students at WoodsEdge were eager to check out the goods and help unload the van.
“Gorgeous, thank you so much,” exclaimed Kim Wright, WoodsEdge staffer, who says the donations mean so much to the parents.
“A lot of our families, when you have a special needs child, it is very hard to find day care so it’s really hard to get a job,” she explained.
“It just gives my heart a lot of warmth to see how generous everybody is and has been to us.”
All the donations have been placed into a room at the school where students will be making their selections and getting ready for the big day. Prom is May 17th.