Pamela Whittington, the owner of Classic Cleaners, shows a few of the donated prom dresses in this year’s prom dress drive. The drive provides for high schoolers who cannot afford them. This annual event will be accepting donations throughout the month of February until March 31. Photo by Molly Solomon.

As the warm February sun shines in through the shop door, local business owner Pamela Whittington enthusiastically points out the rack of dresses near the front of her store, Classic Cleaners. A spectrum of brightly colored dresses await cleaning and sorting. These prom dresses will then be given to high schoolers who cannot afford a dress.

The third annual prom dress drive aims to give out prom dresses to local students who cannot afford one. The Santa Cruz and Watsonville areas grappled with 13.8 percent unemployment at the close of 2010, up 0.5 percent from December 2009, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Organizers of the annual prom dress drive hope to reach more students across the Santa Cruz and Watsonville areas by holding two different shopping dates in March and April.

Council member Tony Madrigal, who brought the event to Santa Cruz after hearing of its success in other areas, explained that his goals for this year’s drive are “to do better outreach, reach more of the students and more of the schools.”

Classic Cleaners, on Soquel Avenue, offers free cleaning for all the donated dresses. Whittington’s shop, as well as the Walnut Avenue Women’s Center, Comerica Banks and Bailey Properties offices are all dress drop-off areas.

“[Prom] is … a milestone,” Whittington said. “It’s going to the next level of your life. The economy cannot let this rite of passage go away.”

Bridal Veil Fashions in Capitola has already donated new dresses to the event, despite the resulting loss in its own sales.

“This is competition [for Bridal Veil Fashion], and what do they do? They send brand-new dresses,” Whittington said as she pointed towards a row of dresses, many of which still had tags. “It just shows how much they value their community.”

As local support floods in, many people donate more than dresses. Whittington smiled and lifted up several bustiers that have been donated, explaining that the drive receives everything from shoes to makeup and jewelry.

Whittington said that the committee did not “solicit for the shoes, or the makeup, or the bustiers,” but still, community members took the initiative and brought unopened makeup, as well as accessories.

Cita Rasul, who works for the Walnut Avenue Women’s Center and serves on the committee for the dress drive, has seen firsthand the effect such generosity has on individuals. Rasul personally knew a young woman who received a dress the first year of the event. She now works on promotions, giving back to the community and the event that gave her the opportunity to fully experience her prom.

For those involved in the dress drive, a major concern is making sure the event is comfortable and accessible for the high schoolers who participate.

“We make sure this is a fun and exciting time and there is no shame at all,” Rasul said, “It’s really exciting to see the gratification on the girls’ faces when they put on a dress.”

Upon receiving a dress, students are asked only their name and their school affiliation so that volunteers can determine which schools are being reached and what can be done to make the event inclusive to all high schools in the area.

As the event grows, the organizers hope to better involve university students in collections and donations. Currently there is not a drop-off station at UC Santa Cruz, but council member Madrigal hopes to eventually include one in the drive.

Madrigal, who had gone to Whittington with the idea to start the drive several years back, said that he is “just trying to have better, out-of-the-box thinking [and] creative ideas to help people in our community.”

Whittington said that her history as a “Salvation Army baby” and the fact she was unable to attend her own prom are why she hopes to offer local high schoolers the chance to attend prom without the financial burden.

Whittington said: “[We’re] putting the call out to clean out your closets and donate that dress.”