Chelsea Tigner, a junior at Nelsonville-York High School, tried on a five or six dresses before falling in love with one her aunt, a committee member, had in mind for her.

Photographer: Patrick Oden

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'Sisterhood of the Traveling Dresses' reaches out to local high school girls

OHIO students join forces with local women to gather prom and graduation dresses

Tri-County High School senior Ashley Swart beamed as she walked from behind the dressing room curtains and out onto the red carpet that ran the length of the temporary dress store in The Market on State. The purple gown she wore was the first one she tried on, and she was ready to give it new memories at her May 14th prom.

On Saturday and Sunday, the previously vacant store was transformed into a formal dress shop for the first "Sisterhood of the Traveling Dresses" event, a project led by local women and Ohio University’s Women’s Panhellenic Association (WPA). The women worked together to collect prom and graduation dresses for high school girls in need.

A member of her prom committee, Swart spoke with her mom, Lisa, about plans for a matching mask to fit the masquerade ball theme of the dance. Both agreed that the dress collection was a great idea.

“[It’s] something that should definitely stay around,” Swart said.

Based on the success of the inaugural event, the plan is to make it an annual affair, according to Tracy Galway, one of eight committee members for the event.

One hour into the event, Galway said at least 100 girls had already been through the store. Each girl was allowed to choose one dress to take home, free of charge, and could have her dress altered and steamed before leaving. 

Teens from all six Athens County schools attended the event, in addition to some girls from outside counties, Galway said.

Chelsea Tigner, a junior at Nelsonville-York High School, tried on a five or six dresses before falling in love with one her aunt, a committee member, had in mind for her. Though she is considered a tomboy by family, Tigner said the May 7th prom will be her second, and her favorite part is dressing up for the night.

The pink and green beaded gown that Tigner chose was too long, but she barely had time to notice. She stood as volunteer Barbara Fiocchi, an administrative assistant at the OHIO School of Theater, trimmed the tulle, layering the new hem she had quickly sewn.

Fiocchi was one of approximately 14 volunteers from the School of Theater who helped with on-the-spot alterations.

“I absolutely love the concept,” Fiocchi said. “Everybody knows what it’s like to try to dress up and not to be able to afford what you want.”

With more than 1,200 dresses as well as an assortment of shoes and accessories arranged throughout the store, Galway said the goal is that the project will grow next year to include more accessories, boys’ clothing and possibly become a non-profit.

Galway said the donation deadline of March 31 was overlooked as more community members heard about the group’s efforts. The week before the event, phone calls were still pouring in concerning donations as well as attendance at the event.

The group recruited shoppers through local schools, Job and Family Services, Tri-County Mental Health and Children’s Services, among others. The guidelines for obtaining a dress remained vague: Anyone in need was welcome.

On Sunday, local developmentally disabled adults joined in the shopping, seeking out dresses for their own prom.

“Our hope in future years, too, is also that the dresses may travel back to us or get passed along to others,” Galway said.

Char Kopchick, assistant dean of students for campus involvement, was involved with the efforts and said she looks at it from the standpoint of the dresses.

“If I was the dress and I was only worn once, I would be sad,” Kopchick said. “There are so many stories being made.”

She added that many OHIO women had the opportunity to go to their proms and other dances, and by donating their dresses or assisting with the event, they were able to play the role of big sisters. Sisterhood was where the idea for the event came about, after all.

WPA Vice President of Community Service Amanda Cotleur accepted Kopchick's suggestion that the WPA assist with the event. Cotleur served as a liaison between the local organizers and approximately 75 Ohio University students, coordinating dress donations and volunteers.

With nine Athens campus sororities in the WPA, Cotleur said she asked that each donate a minimum of 30 dresses. The response she received was bigger than she had imagined.

“The girls went above and beyond,” Cotleur said.

Representatives from each of the WPA sororities volunteered on Saturday and Sunday, along with volunteers from the service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega, and women from multicultural Greek life. Cotleur said she got emotional watching the event come together and serve its intended purpose.


This special Compass series features the programs and initiatives through which Ohio University students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends are realizing their promise as they elevate lives across the region. These people-focused success stories take you behind the scenes and highlight the many meaningful ways OHIO serves society by supporting educational, economic, creative and wellness endeavors, as well as other humanitarian efforts.