Saying yes to the dress

Neighbors: Profiles of our community

Becca’s Closet coordinator Theresa Cabral (left) and Maui dressmaker Jennifer Oberg are making prom night dreams come true for Maui County students. SARAH RUPPENTHAL photo

Prom season is just around the corner, and right now, preparations are underway for the big night: There are corsages to order, limos to rent and dance moves to master.

And then there’s the matter of finding the perfect dress. For some teens, this can be a sticking point. A prom dress can cost a pretty penny (formal gowns can range anywhere from $100 to $800), putting the event financially out of reach for many high-schoolers and their parents.

That’s where nonprofits like Becca’s Closet step in to help.

Becca’s Closet was founded in memory of Rebecca Kirtman, a 16-year-old Florida high school student who died in a tragic car accident in August 2003. Realizing prom was cost-prohibitive for many of her classmates, Rebecca launched a dress drive to collect formal gowns and accessories for those who couldn’t otherwise afford them. In the spring of 2003, she singlehandedly rounded up and distributed more than 250 prom dresses to girls in South Florida. Today, Rebecca’s family carries on her legacy of kindness with Becca’s Closet, which has volunteer-led chapters nationwide, including one in Hawaii: Becca’s Closet at King Kekaulike High School.

Ten years ago, Becca’s Closet set up shop at King Kekaulike as part of a student’s senior project. After the student graduated, her mother contacted guidance counselor Theresa Cabral and asked if she would continue the program. Cabral says it didn’t take much convincing. “I saw how much joy it brought to the girls . . . and the parents, too,” she said.

Becca’s Closet at King Kekaulike High School offers free formal wear to all Maui County high school students. The final two shopping days for the 2019 prom season will take place on March 9, from 9 a.m. to noon, and March 22, from 3 to 4:30 p.m. A valid student ID is required. Limit is one dress per student. JENNIFER OBERG photo

Cabral retired last year, but stayed on as coordinator of the PTSA-sponsored program. She’s no longer on campus five days a week, but you’ll find her there on the twice-monthly Becca’s Closet shopping days, which are held December through March. “I love it,” she said. “The best thing is when I see girls from different schools help each other find the perfect dress.”

And while it may be headquartered there, the program is not exclusive to King Kekaulike. “It’s open to all Maui County high school students,” Cabral explained. “We’ve had students come from all over, including Lanai and Molokai.”

Here’s how it works: Students arrive on designated shopping days, present their student ID, and start perusing the racks. Once they find the perfect dress, they take it home — free of charge. Cabral credits the success of the program to its donors, who have ensured there’s plenty of inventory; there are hundreds of gowns in every color, size and style. And if you think these are just hand-me-down dresses, think again. Some are gently used, but the racks are also filled with brand-new and brand-name gowns (many still with the tags on). Apart from dresses, there are shoes, jewelry and purses — all ready to grace the dance floor at proms, senior balls and JROTC military balls countywide.

In November, Maui dressmaker Jennifer Oberg discovered Becca’s Closet and says its mission resonated with her. Eager to contribute her time and talent, Oberg contacted Cabral and offered to sponsor five dress alterations. Alterations can be costly, she said, “And most dresses need a little something.” Oberg brought her measuring tape, a box of pins and tailor’s chalk to two shopping days in January and February; the five gowns are now awaiting their wearers in her Makawao studio. (And Oberg’s idea has caught on — other benefactors have stepped up to sponsor alterations, too.) “I’m so happy to have an opportunity to use my skill to help these girls,” she said.

And it won’t be the last time — Oberg says she’s in it for the long haul. She and Cabral have their sights set on a dedicated space for Becca’s Closet, which is steadily outgrowing its current home on the King Kekaulike campus. At the top of their wish list: a donated 40- to 60-foot-long office trailer with electricity and air conditioning; Oberg says it would allow them to add more shopping days to the calendar and create a boutique-like experience for the teens.

Cabral has seen her share of magical moments at Becca’s Closet — and that’s what keeps her coming back year after year. She says one of the greatest rewards is seeing a girl stand in front of the mirror smiling at her reflection. “You can see the joy on their faces . . . and it’s a wonderful thing to see.”

The final two shopping days for the 2019 prom season will take place on March 9, from 9 a.m. to noon, and March 22, from 3 to 4:30 p.m. Enter the King Kekaulike campus through the Old Haleakala Highway entrance and follow the signs to Becca’s Closet. To learn more about Becca’s Closet or to make a tax-deductible donation, contact Cabral at tcabral@hawaiiantel.net. All preworn dresses must be clean and in good or excellent condition; monetary donations are also needed for purchasing garment bags, display racks, mirrors and other items. If you’d like to sponsor a dress alteration, contact Oberg at 757-5915 or love@jenniferoberg .com.

* Sarah Ruppenthal is a Maui-based writer. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at missruppenthal@gmail.com. Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.

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