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The Cinderella Project searches for new home

By Rebecca J. Barnabi
For Augusta Free Press

The Cinderella Project
Photo courtesy The Cinderella Project.

STAUNTON — The story is like something out of a fairy tale.

But instead of an individual, a nonprofit found a caring home.

Until it was told to leave in December.

Now The Cinderella Project of the Shenandoah Valley is looking for the next glass slipper that fits, or storefront that shines.

“We’re looking for our new home, and we know that God has that space,” said Rhonda Howdyshell, who founded The Cinderella Project in 2004.

At the time, attending prom could cost $1,200 to $1,500 per student and Howdyshell was director of Habitat for Humanity. She realized that the families the nonprofit built homes for could not afford for their sons and daughters to attend prom.

An article in The News Leader by Chris Lassiter about local proms put the cost of prom into perspective for Howdyshell.

“That was when it was placed on my heart [by God],” Howdyshell said of the founding of The Cinderella Project.

But the timing for her was all wrong. Would she be able to run one nonprofit and start another at the same time?

She asked several colleagues what they thought, including a trusted associate at The Salvation Army who said that all high school students regardless of economic means should have the opportunity to attend prom.

“I realized then it was about equity and high school [experiences],” Howdyshell, who lives in Middlebrook, said.

At first, The Cinderella Project with 10 dresses. Within weeks, hundreds of dresses were available for students unable to pay for a prom dress.

The dresses were housed at the Habitat ReStore and The Salvation Army until 2009, when the Staunton Mall offered free space for the nonprofit in April and May. The rest of the year, dresses were kept in storage.

Eventually, the Staunton Mall gave the nonprofit year-round space at a nonprofit price.

“We were pretty spoiled being there in the mall with a store front,” Howdyshell said.

The Cinderella Project now serves 49 high schools and middle schools in the Valley, including proms, homecomings and middle school dances.

“Anything that is celebrating a high school or middle school achievement,” Howdyshell said.

In early December, all tenants of the Staunton Mall were informed of new ownership and that they had until Christmas Eve to vacate the mall. Howdyshell said The Cinderella Project moved out of a 3,000-square-foot store and dresses were placed in storage in Waynesboro at the end of December.

“We really pride ourselves on the experience,” Howdyshell said of students shopping for the perfect dress.

The Cinderella Project is looking for a year-round space preferably in Staunton, Waynesboro or Verona as big as the space it called home in the mall.

In 2019, the nonprofit served 318 students with dresses worth $500 to $700 each.

Last year, the nonprofit was closed from March to August, as was the rest of the Staunton Mall, then reopened by appointment only.

“Our biggest hope is that we’ll find a space, and we’ll be able to open in July,” Howdyshell said.

Kathe Morrison of Waynesboro has been president of the nonprofit since 2009. She holds a degree in business management and specializes in process streamlining and procedure.

“Just the overall reward of seeing students get their Cinderella moment,” Morrison said. “You have some students come in and they’ve never been in a dress.”

Morrison said watching the transformation of students when they realize how pretty they are in a dress brings a smile to their faces, including the Cinder-fellas in a suit.

Sometimes a group of girlfriends comes in because one of the girls is looking for a dress, and Morrison said that another of the girls will mention she cannot afford to go to prom, and Morrison tells her she can also get a dress.

“We’re there to help everybody,” Morrison said.

Each student gets a personal stylist and “it’s all about them” so that they get their own individual experience.

After all these years, Morrison said the staff know the dresses in inventory and which dresses work for each body type.

Morrison said more students will be in need of dresses this year than usual because of the pandemic’s economic impact.

“We don’t turn anyone away,” Morrison said.

The nonprofit lately is starting to receive donations of wedding dresses and funeral attire.

The Cinderella Project also provides clothing for the annual Night to Shine, a local formal night held for special needs adults, and for students attending the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind’s prom.

From 2017 to 2018, according to Morrison, the nonprofit saw 20 percent growth.

“I think being in the mall gave us a place to advertise,” Morrison said. The community knew where to find The Cinderella Project.

Fundraising efforts, including event sponsors for a day, dressing room sponsors during prom season and short dress sales provide other items available for students to attend prom. The community also donates jewelry.

Morrison said the nonprofit orders earrings and necklace sets from a New York vendor, eyeshadow palettes and hygiene sets.

“We just try to have everything they need so it doesn’t cost them anything,” Morrison said.

If you know of an affordable space for rent for The Cinderella Project, email stauntoncinderellaproject@gmail.com.


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