Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ensuring grad day is truly special

Program provides gowns for needy

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A girl's graduation from high school is one of the most important accomplishments of her life. It is to be celebrated, embraced with both hands. It marks the survival of having met the challenge of growing up in this world.

Graduation day itself allows a young woman to stand with one foot in the past, looking back at successes that have brought her to this moment, and one foot in the future, looking forward to all life has to offer as she journeys ahead.

But the sad reality is, because the cost of purchasing a fancy new gown may be too steep, not all young women attend their high school graduation.

That is why Lorraine Penman, chairwoman of the Gowns for Grads program, and 70 volunteers from the Laura Milner White Committee, have come together to make sure graduation day is a magical experience for all girls across Winnipeg. This year, the Gowns for Grads program will see 483 deserving young women from 33 different schools choose from among 1,500 donated dresses to find that special outfit for that most enchanting of days.

"I know a lot of our volunteers have said they have gone shopping with their daughters to find that perfect graduation dress and never thought twice," says Penman. "But not all girls have gowns for graduation."

The Gowns for Grads program was initiated by St. John's High School in 2009 after they learned some young women were not attending their own graduation because they did not have a dress to wear. Due to the overwhelming response by students and the high volume of dress donations, the program was opened up to students from other schools. In 2011, Gowns for Grads was organized by the Winnipeg School Division and last year, the program became a Laura Milner White Committee project. The Laura Milner White Committee was established in 2005 in memory of a woman who passed away from cancer to continue her legacy of support and encouragement of volunteering with youth in inner-city schools.

Volunteers work year-round to make this event possible. High schools and even adult learning centres are contacted to see if they are interested in participating.

During a three-day event at the Winnipeg Convention Centre, young women who participate in this program work with a volunteer to find that unique dress, along with accessories such as shoes and handbags, and have the opportunity to choose one brand-new piece of jewelery to top off the outfit.

"Sometimes girls come maybe lacking a little confidence, but volunteers will not stop until they have helped them find the right dress," says Penman. "It's so amazing to see the look on the girls' faces when they come out in the gown they've chosen. Some of these girls have overcome a lot to get to this day. This program, it's not just about a dress, it's about making girls feel good, feel special."

This year, volunteers also worked hard to hand-make 500 gift bags for the young women filled with makeup samples and gift certificates for manicures, pedicures and hair.

"I've volunteered all of my adult life, but to me, this is the most rewarding thing I have ever done," says Penman. "When a girl steps in the room, just glowing from head to toe -- we're not curing cancer, we're not saving the world, but I really think that we are making a difference."

Penman is dreaming even bigger for next year. At the top of her wish list? A permanent space for the program, big enough to store the donated gowns and accessories year-round and to hold the event itself. She knows there are more young women the program could reach, and she's determined that with the right space, more girls could be smiling ear to ear, confidently sharing together in their graduation day.

Donations of current, stylish dresses for next year's Gowns for Grads event can be made between June 15 to Aug, 31 at any Perth's Drycleaners.


If you know a special volunteer who strives to make his or her community a better place to live, please contact Carolyn Shimmin-Bazak at

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 25, 2013 B3

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