Editor’s note: The “Community Consciousness” focus page will run in the third issue of every month. If you would like to suggest a nonprofit or individual serving the community to focus on, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
For many, prom is a quintessential part of high school — the dresses and suits, the dinner before and the party after, the limo and photographs with friends and family all blended together in one mythical night that students have spent months, if not years, looking forward to.
But for others, the entire experience can just be another painful reminder of the economic privilege they lack.
That’s why Bonney Lake-resident Amanda Lawson and Wilkesonian Nicole McCoy became business partners and started the Princess Project of Washington, providing dresses and accessories not just for teenagers to be equipped for the No. 1 dance of the year, but women of all ages for every sort of event.
Both women were running a Facebook page in 2015, pairing up visitors with various needs or looking for specific items with people willing to provide either, when a request came down the line for some prom dresses.
This sparked some memories for them.
“Both of us didn’t have the ability to go to prom ourselves. We didn’t have the extra money, and there weren’t programs out there that can help us with that,” Lawson said in a phone interview. “We just feel it’s important for these girls to really have that moment that they can feel beautiful and have those extra things.”
They kept working as a grassroots organization until they partnered with the Lakewood-based Exceptional Families Network, which allowed them to secure their nonprofit status in 2018. Since April of that year, Lawson and McCoy have paired more than 100 girls and women with dresses for their various events.
Even though the Princess Project of Washington focuses on the Plateau area, including Orting, Lawson, McCoy, and a core group of about two dozen volunteers and supporters go as far west as Ocean Shores and as far north as Everett to collect donations and host events.
In addition to the Exceptional Families Network, other organizations like Sumner-based Enchanted Bridals, the Bonney Lake Lions, Just Between Friends in the Monroe/Everett area, Brides for a Cause in Tacoma and Seattle, Adorned in Grace in Lakewood, God’s Closet near Chehalis, and Renton’s Classic Cleaners all aid the Princess Project of Washington in their mission.
“We do a lot of driving, picking up dresses,” Lawson said.
In order to find a dress with The Princess Project of Washington, you can visit www.princessprojectwa.com to fill out a survey that includes contact, event, and sizing information.
Once that is complete, Lawson and McCoy open up their Orting location at the Students Success Center (215 Whitesell St. NW) on Sundays for fittings at various times.
Because Orting can be hard for some people to get to, the duo also host what they call Dress Closets in other communities, where “we just pull out all the dresses and let the girls come at scheduled times and pick dresses,” Lawson said, adding these tend to be more centered around prom.
But they’ve also helped women find dresses, shoes, jewelry, purses, and even makeup for other events like weddings, funerals, and military and police balls.
“We have dresses for any occasion,” Lawson continued.
For more information on events and drop-off locations around the state, go to the Princess Project of Washington Facebook page.
PRINCESSES AT THE PAGEANT
The Exceptional Families Network is a 15-year-old nonprofit that strives to help families who have children with special needs, from helping them find local resources for diagnosis or management to helping parents learn how to advocate for Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) for their kids in school.
As part of their partnership with the Exceptional Families Network, The Princess Project of Washington uses some of their dresses every year for the Miss Exceptional Pageant, a statewide pageant for girls and women of almost all ages who have special needs, including — but certainly not limited to — Aspergers and autism.
“The whole point of the program is to help them gain confidence and have a lot of self-esteem,” said Sami Schubert, founder and co-director of the nonprofit pageant. “Typically, girls in school are bullied far more if they have a disability, and Miss Exceptional was created to help them gain confidence. And when they get that dress from Amanda and Nicole… and they put it on, I’ve heard girls say, ‘I feel just like Belle,’ [or] ‘I feel just like Cinderella.’”
Schubert herself is familiar with pageants, as she will be competing for the title of Miss Washington on June 29.
While she will not be wearing a Princess Project-provided dress at the pageant, Schubert and her peers donate the clothes they wear to Lawson and McCoy so “other girls have the same opportunity to feel the way we felt in our evening gowns,” she continued.
The Miss Exception Pageant is not a beauty competition — makeup is completely optional, as is wearing fancy clothes and shoes.
“We ask our judges to evaluate based on confidence and personality,” the nonprofit’s website reads, adding that judges are not informed of a participant’s disability.
And while many attendees are verbal and have a chance to be interviewed by Schubert on stage and speak to judges, non-verbal contestants are able to use video or another medium to showcase their character.
A new Exceptional Gentleman pageant has also started as of this year, in order to help boys and young men gain confidence as well.
For more information, visit www.missexceptional.org/.