Grad dress drive becomes labour of love


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It’s only February, but the glimmer and glam of graduation is already on the mind of Kathy Hebert.

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It’s only February, but the glimmer and glam of graduation is already on the mind of Kathy Hebert.

The training and development co-ordinator at Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata is also the resident “fairy grad-mother,” heading up a dress and suit donation drive and putting the call out for formal attire no longer wanted to match with a 2023 high school graduate in need.

The idea came in June, when Hebert attended a grad ceremony.

“As an Indigenous woman, I just noticed there was something missing from many of the Indigenous youth that were at that graduation, where their dresses weren’t the same and their hair and makeup wasn’t done professionally… I just thought there was something we could do,” she said, adding everybody deserves to feel their best on graduation day.

The cost of celebrating a milestone in style can be out of reach for some — a barrier Hebert knew she could help dismantle. She brought the idea of a grad dress and suit drive to the management team at Ma Mawi, who told her to run with it.

This type of community-led approach is typical for Ma Mawi. The full name of the centre translates from Ojibwa into the phrase, “We all work together to help one another.”

Hebert began collecting items in September. It started with a dress here, and a dress there; then, last week, it snowballed as word of the drive got out via social media.

Her office is now filled with dresses of all shapes and sizes. To get to her desk, she must pivot through a mountain of sequins and tulle, and inch past a box full of shoes and a whole other rack of shimmery gowns.

“I’m really excited about this,” Hebert said, eyes glistening with happy tears. “Like in my mind, I have a little boutique set up where the grands can come in.

“My goal is to continue this every year, and maybe the grads that benefited this year, you know, getting and receiving a dress or suit, will donate it back so that next year, other grads can benefit from it.”

It’s a stance echoed by Ma Mawi operations manager Marion McKenzie: “If you do have a dress to donate that is a bit older or that you think is too simple, don’t think that nobody’s going to want to wear it, because somebody will.”

Taylor Quill, 24, will be graduating June 23 from the Manitoba Institute of Trades and Technology adult learning centre. The single mother of an eight-year-old daughter was introduced to the program by her mom, who saw a post on Facebook.

“I am very excited,” said Quill, who said receiving a dress will be a weight lifted off her shoulders. “It’s just amazing that the program does this for young people.”

In terms of what kind of gown she’d like for her milestone day, Quill said the sky’s the limit — though she wants to try to move out of her comfort zone.

The program plan is to have recipients come in and pick up dresses sometime in March. For now, Hebert is still collecting dresses, suits, shoes and accessories at the centre at 445 King St. (or contact Hebert at, or 204-925-0300).

She emphasized no dress is too big or small or too fancy or simple to donate. She’s also put the call out for makeup artists, hairstylists and photographers who can donate their time and skill to help make grad day magical for recipients.

So far, they’ve had a few professionals from each industry reach out, including a business that is donating use of a limo for a day for one of the grads.

“I had one woman who I picked dresses up from on the weekend, she didn’t have dresses but she saw the post and she went out and bought some from a second-hand store to donate them,” Hebert said. “Just seeing all the kindness and love that is going into this to make it happen is incredible.”

For Hebert, just knowing she can help make graduates feel good on a milestone day brings her to tears. “I just can’t wait to see their smiles, and how happy this makes them.”

Twitter: @ShelleyACook

Shelley Cook

Shelley Cook
Columnist, Manager of Reader Bridge project

Shelley is a born and raised Winnipegger. She is a proud member of the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation.

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