By David Dawson
Baptist & Reflector
FAIRVIEW — A causal phone call about formal clothing.
That’s really all it took to prompt Jamie Gillette to start a ministry.
Now, more than 10 years later, she oversees an inventory of about 3,000 special-occasion dresses and gowns that are available, free of charge, to teenage girls who come from financially-challenging situations.
The ministry is housed at First Baptist Church in Fairview, where Gillette is a member and preschool director.
“I was having a conversation with my sister one day and we were talking about how expensive prom was,” said Gillette, “and we were saying how unfortunate it was that some girls couldn’t afford dresses. So, that’s kind of how the whole thing started.”
Shortly after that chat, Gillette decided to take action. She went before the church and asked if she could start a prom-dress ministry in which “gently-worn” formal attire would be donated, and then distributed to those in need.
The church was on board with the idea, and the details soon fell into place.
“Our pastor, Dr. Bill Sherman, doesn’t use the parsonage,” said Gillette, “so, we were able to house the closet in three rooms in the basement of the parsonage.”
Gillette’s first year of providing prom dresses was in 2007. Two years later, the ministry merged with Becca’s Closet — a national, non-profit organization that collects and distributes formal dresses.
Gillette, who now serves as the coordinator for the Fairview chapter of Becca’s Closet, has worked closely through the years with Jo Ann D’Andrea, who had previously managed Becca’s Closet out of her home before merging with Gillette and moving the inventory to the FBC parsonage.
“She had a lot of dresses, and we had a lot of space,” said Gillette. “So that worked out perfectly.”
Gillette said she has been able to use the ministry as a means of outreach, and said it has opened the door for numerous gospel conversations.
“We get to witness to many girls (who come to look for dresses),” said Gillette. “They will ask about our church, and ask us why we do what we do — and the conversation usually goes forward from there.”
Gillette said she is blessed every year to know that her ministry is helping teenage girls get the opportunity to wear dresses that they might not normally be able to afford.
“It’s such a rite of passage for girls — or really, for any child, boy or girl — to go to prom,” said Gillette. “And there are girls who have dresses that are just hanging in their closet. I know that I had mine for years after my prom. So, I just thought that surely there would be some girls who would want to donate their dresses.”
She was right. Since its inception, the ministry has collected dresses from individuals all across Tennessee, and well beyond. Schools and churches have also helped increase the inventory by hosting “dress drives,” while stores and designers have also donated.
Many times, the girls who utilize Becca’s Closet will return the dresses after prom, even though they are not required to do so.
“Some really have an attachment to the dresses, and we love that,” said Gillette. “We tell them, ‘the dress is yours.’ You can have it altered if you need to (wear it again for a different occasion when they get older). But in most cases, they bring the dress back so that someone else can use it.”
Gillette noted the ministry is not exclusively for prom dresses. Formal wear is also available for girls who are attending military balls or homecoming events.
Although many of the girls who use the closet are from the Nashville area, Gillette said there have been girls from Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia, and other states that have made the drive to Fairview.
“Spending $100 in gas is still a lot cheaper than a $600 dress,” Gillette said.
Gillette said the organization tries to emphasize that the ministry is for girls “in need.” However, the organization operates on the honor system and takes a “no-questions-asked” type of approach.
“We do not ask for any financial information or anything like that,” she said. “So, yes, there is the potential for someone to possibly take advantage (of the ministry). But honestly, we don’t feel like that has ever happened.”
The only requirement for the girls, Gillette said, is to bring a report card or some other form of ID to validate they are in school.
The closet is open each year from January through late spring. Arrangements can also be made for girls in need of dresses during other parts of the year, Gillette said. Appointments for fitting and shopping can be made via e-mail at GownsforGirls@comcast.net. Donations are accepted throughout the year.
“There are stories every year of girls who have been touched by the ministry,” said Gillette, “and that’s where we get blessed.”