published Sunday, March 24th, 2013

Chattanooga area's Rescue Prom supplies free dresses for spring rite

Billie Laher, a junior at East Ridge High, right, picks out prom dresses to try on with her sister-in-law Kristyn Browning during Rescue Prom on Saturday in the Hixson Community Center gym in Hixson, Tenn. Rescue Prom offered free prom dresses, accessories, and fittings for high school girls.
Billie Laher, a junior at East Ridge High, right, picks out prom dresses to try on with her sister-in-law Kristyn Browning during Rescue Prom on Saturday in the Hixson Community Center gym in Hixson, Tenn. Rescue Prom offered free prom dresses, accessories, and fittings for high school girls.
Photo by Doug Strickland.

"Turn around," Hannah Patterson's mother urged. She wanted to see the off-white Watters & Watters dress from all angles. Then a volunteer pressed an orange Belsoie against Hannah's body. What about this one?

The volunteer also floated a white Jessica Howard in front of Hannah. And then somehow a sage-colored dress got involved.

"I don't know what I like," Hannah said, shaking her head at her mother and at her grandmother in the bleachers.

It was 2:30 p.m. Saturday, about three hours after the three generations arrived at the Hixson Community Center gym. Hannah, a 15-year-old home-schooled freshman, came along with about 330 other girls to Rescue Prom, a one-day event in which area high school students search through about 3,000 free dresses for the perfect end-of-the-year dance attire.

Hannah plans to attend a formal dance for local home-school students next month with friends who volunteer with her at the Hixson Therapeutic Riding Center. She's worn dresses before, sure. But never to an event like this. Never to a prom.

"She's just getting to the age when she's transitioning from being a tomboy all the time to wanting to fix her hair up and put on a dress and go out," said her mother, Gayle Patterson.

Hannah doesn't know what the dance will be like. She said her two older brothers didn't go, so they can't tell her what to expect. More than anything else, she's attending out of curiosity. But to do that, she needs a dress.

Rescue Prom started after three tornadoes hit Dade County, Ga., in April 2011. Kim Goins was feeding survivors when she got a call from her daughter, Paige, a student at Tennessee Wesleyan. Paige reminded her mother that prom was weeks away, and some girls might not be able to get dresses.

Goins, 50, asked around to see if anyone could help and met Crystal Cadieux, another disaster relief volunteer. Cadieux created a Facebook page. A couple of local news outlets saw it and shared it. Other news outlets saw and shared those original broadcasts, and word spread across the country.

Dresses poured in, 30 in just one day, so many that Goins had to cut open a box on her doorstep to convince the UPS driver that she wasn't, in fact, running a drug ring. In all, she and Cadieux received 4,000 dresses. They couldn't give them all away, so they stuffed the leftovers in a storage facility.

They have handed out dresses for the last two springs, and they still have thousands to spare.

Cadieux, 29, wants to make this a full-time operation, giving away fancy clothes to those in need for events like weddings, but she can't do that yet. She said she needs more -- more funding and more volunteers.

She feels momentum growing. Of the three years, this year's turnout was the best, in both students and volunteers. Cadieux promoted the event for two months, and a local Belk store loaned about 100 racks to hold the dresses.

Members of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity lugged tables into the gym, and sisters from Omega Phi Alpha spent about six hours the day before sorting the 3,000 dresses by size.

Barbara Havlin, 59, offered her services as a seamstress all day, shortening straps and fixing buttons and sewing darts into the busts. When she was in high school, Havlin's boyfriend decided they were too cool for the prom. She doesn't know why she listened to him.

"I'm kind of living vicariously," she said Saturday, looking out at the dresses, organized by size, divided into rows like a multicolored, sequenced cornfield.

Somewhere buried among that field, Hannah strolled along with a friend who had come to help. Eventually, she settled on the white Jessica Howard dress. It was modest. Her father would be pleased.

"I'd rather wear cowboy boots," Hannah said.

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