The Cinderella Project

A fairy tale in action

(R) Sierra Small, a senior at White Knoll High School, tries on a gown donated to the Cinderella Project. (L to R) Michelle Parsons Kelley, Dare Perry Bailey, Lisa Hostetler and Jamesetta Lovett with the Cinderella Project assist her in making a decision.

Jeff Amberg

Sixty-three years ago, on Feb. 15, 1950, Walt Disney’s full-length animated movie of the Cinderella fairy tale was first released. Anywhere from 350 to 1,500 versions of the story exist in cultures across the globe, some dating back hundreds of years. Each differs in small ways, but in practically all versions, the Cinderella character is a beautiful young lady who, through no fault of her own, finds herself with no one to care for her or financially support her.
Until, of course, the fairy godmother appears.
Ah, the magical fairy godmother – a character whose illustrated physical characteristics vary from bird-sized, classically beautiful sprites to human-sized, hefty, grandmotherly types, and every other interpretation in between, depending on the legend or the movie. Here in Columbia, it’s a group of lawyers who have turned out to be fairy godparents for some young women in need.
In 2002, the Young Lawyers Division of the South Carolina Bar adapted a national service project, appropriately named The Cinderella Project, to provide prom dresses for hundreds of high school girls throughout the state. “We gather donations of gently worn formal gowns, shoes and accessories for socially and economically disadvantaged high school students,” says Michelle Parsons Kelley, a litigation attorney at Richardson, Plowden & Robinson, PA. “Then we hold an annual boutique before prom where the girls come to pick out dresses that fit.”
Michelle serves as this year’s chair of the statewide Cinderella Project, and she oversees the local projects in Columbia, Aiken, Anderson, Florence, Greenville, Greenwood and Orangeburg. “There is rarely much fundraising involved because we are able to hold the boutiques on ridiculously low budgets – around $500 per event – thanks to volunteers, donations and sponsors,” Michelle says. “Each participating city is supported by its own unique sponsors. The Upsilon Omega Omega chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha was a co-sponsor of the first Midlands event with YLD, and the sorority has been involved every year since.”
The Midlands’ Cinderella Project committee is chaired by Lisa Hostetler, an attorney with Rogers, Townsend & Thomas, PC, and is comprised of more than 30 young lawyers from various firms, as well as representatives from Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. Jamesetta Lovett, a senior applications analyst at the South Carolina Judicial Department, has co-chaired the Cinderella Project for AKA, along with Deborah Kinnard. Latarsa Williams is the 2013 co-chair of Cinderella Project for AKA.
“I have only missed one event in the last eight years,” Jamesetta says. “It’s such a heartfelt event, especially now with the economy having been where it has been. It is really helpful to families. The girls are grateful, but the parents are really grateful and so thankful. Some of the parents ask about bringing the dresses back for us to use the next year and this shows how much they need this.”
Some years, the Cinderella Project may have special needs, like dressing rooms or heavy-duty garment racks for the boutiques, and sponsors like South Carolina Federal Credit Union and Junior League of Columbia step up to help.
There are no limits to who can and cannot attend a Cinderella Project boutique. All that is required for access to the one-day shopping event is a high school ID. The Midlands project even reaches out to include the high school girls at Epworth Children’s Home.
Jamesetta shares a story about one of her Alpha Kappa Alpha sisters. Ruby Gentry Edwards developed a special bond with a girl from Epworth when helping one year with the gown selection. “Ruby ended up becoming her mentor, and they have been friends ever since,” she says. “AKA is all about service, but out of everything we do, this is my favorite project because you know you are not only helping people, but you also get to witness the looks on their faces. It just touches your heart to know you are an active part of making a difference.”
In 2011, the Midlands boutique provided more than 375 girls with dresses, and in 2012, 346 girls found dresses. Girls came from every high school in the Midlands including Swansea, Gilbert, Newberry, Lugoff, and even from as far away as North Carolina. The Midlands boutique will be held this year at the University of South Carolina School of Law on March 3.
The Cinderella Project is a labor-intensive, time-consuming project that requires many volunteers. “Last year, there were the 30 committee members, as well as 20 additional volunteers for the boutique,” Michelle says. “An estimated 1,200 dresses are donated each year and they have to be properly stored, then loaded and unloaded and hung by size for the event.” Set up begins on Thursday afternoon, the boutique is held on Saturday, then everything has to be broken down following the event.
Michelle and Jamesetta are in accord that the dominant need every year is plus-size dresses. “Sizes 16 and up are always in short supply, and the supply we do get is always quickly depleted,” Jamesetta says. “We encourage people who are out shopping to notice if there are sales on gowns and to please consider purchasing a plus-size gown to donate. Or, if you have plus-size gowns at home, please donate these. This would be very helpful.”
Donations of dresses, formal shoes and accessories are accepted year round at several drop-off locations, including Richardson, Plowden & Robinson on Barnwell Street and Rogers, Townsend & Thomas, PC in the Synergy Business Park off Bush River Road.
“Part of my efforts this year include setting up a brand new website through the sponsorship of Columbia native Lauren Mancke and the Northbound Design team,” Michelle says. The website will offer pertinent information about the Cinderella project, all of the drop off points for donations, and details on the boutique event in March.” Until the site launches, anyone interested in more information can find it at the YLD website,
Young lawyers and others in the Midlands can play the role of fairy godmother, helping Cinderella get beautifully dressed and accessorized and ensuring that she arrives at her prom in style.

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