After nearly five years and thousands of donated gowns, Angela Pauls’ Prom Project is coming to an end.
Pauls started the project in 2016 to provide young women with prom dresses they might otherwise be unable to afford. Since then, the project has offered an assortment of 2,500 gowns, including wedding dresses, to people across three provinces.
But on Saturday, Pauls closed the doors to her Wetaskiwin Mall shop with the COVID-19 pandemic ultimately delivering the final blow to an already struggling charitable venture.
“We just decided that after COVID happened we would not be able to survive what happened with no graduations,” she said. “So we decided it was time to close.”
The store provided donated gowns at a heavily discounted cost. Pauls never took home a paycheck, she says, with all the proceeds reinvested in the project for rent, dry cleaning and other upkeep purchases.
The project had struggled financially since 2018. Pauls moved from a storefront in Millet to the Wetaskiwin Mall location to save on rent that fall. Then two months later, her house burned down.
As her family rebuilt their life on a hobby farm west of Millet, she struggled to keep up with donations and fundraising for the project. In all, she estimates her family spent $20,000 to keep the Prom Project afloat in the past four years.
“We’ve met an amazing group of people. And those are the people that came together and helped refurnish our house after our fire. It’s been amazing and I know people will remember it for a very long time,” she said.
‘The need was there’
The project began when Pauls helped a woman from Calgary collect prom dresses for young women in Fort McMurray who could not afford to buy or replace their gowns destroyed in the devastating 2016 wildfire.
They filled a 3,000-square-foot storage space in Leduc with mountains of donated graduation gowns, Paul said. The gowns often included sentimental notes — a brief message from the past graduate to the future owner expressing hope the dress could bring some comfort to an otherwise trying circumstance.
After collecting roughly 10,000 dresses, more than what was needed in Fort McMurray, Pauls says she decided to keep up the project. She partnered with schools to get donated dresses to young women in need while running the newly minted Prom Project out of another storage container in Wetaskiwin.
“At that point in time, I had kids in high school and a husband who works in the oil fields, so I knew that these families were struggling and the need was there. So we might as well keep it going so all these kids could get these dresses,” Pauls said.
A single dress at a discounted cost, she said, could be a way of reclaiming a young woman’s confidence and living out that time-honoured graduation experience.
“These girls will try on dresses and you’ll see their confidence — they’ll stand up straight, they’ll be smiling, they won’t be looking down,” she said.
Dean Stauffer’s daughter, 12 years old at the time, was captivated by the dresses in the window of the Millet location as they passed by in 2018.
“These girls will try on dresses and you’ll see their confidence — they’ll stand up straight, they’ll be smiling, they won’t be looking down.” – Angela Pauls, owner of the Prom Project
The yellow dress with puffed sleeves immediately caught his daughter’s attention, with its resemblance to Belle from Beauty and the Beast, Stauffer said. The single dad quietly inquired about the price, relieved to know the dress was both affordable and supported a good cause.
“She just about tackled me with a hug, she just loved this dress,” Stauffer said.
Over the years, the two families formed a bond, with Stauffer inviting the Pauls over for Christmas dinner after their house burned down. His daughter volunteered at the store regularly up until the final day. It’s a testament, Stauffer said, to the community the project was able to generate.
“It was just a wonderful environment to work with her,” Stauffer said. “To know that they can help folks out who don’t have much money or any money.”
While the pandemic ultimately spelled the end of the Prom Project, it also heralded the start of Pauls’ next chapter. She turned their hobby farm — complete with miniature potbelly pigs, horses and goats — into a business, hosting tours and special events.
“We decided, you know what, we’re going to make this a business — do it better so it’s an actual business and we don’t lose our shirt like we did with the prom project,” she said.
And while she’s ready to move on, her voice still wavers as she considers the legacy of the Prom Project.
“It’s been really fun. We’ve met a lot of really awesome people, we’ve worked with a lot of great schools. And I am sorry to see it go and I’m hoping that someone along the way will just do something that’s very similar,” she said.
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