NEWARK, NJ — For three years, Livingston resident Michelle Lemieux has been collecting prom gowns for Catherine’s Closet, Inc. to benefit hundreds of local teens who cannot afford to purchase them new.
This year’s drive is currently underway for the organization’s annual distribution days, which are scheduled for April 11 and May 9 at 550 Broad Street in Newark. In addition to collecting gown donations through April 1, Lemieux is also seeking volunteers to help sort dresses on Saturday, April 4 and to assist on shopping days.
“Our community is always so giving and generous when it comes to these types of collections,” said Lemieux. “We collected close to 250 dresses last year, [and] we also received a lot more shoes and accessories last year than any other year.”
Lemieux has already received nearly 200 dresses, including 100 new gowns donated by Park Avenue Bridals in Cedar Grove.
Known throughout the Livingston community for her giving nature, Lemieux is also involved in several other nonprofit organizations such as Livingston Neighbors Helping Neighbors (LNHN), where she serves as a board member and assists at the CHOW food pantry. She also served as a disaster response volunteer for the American Red Cross and has previously donated bone marrow to a stranger.
The Livingston native—who discovered Catherine’s Closet when a friend asked if she knew a place to donate fancy dresses—currently sits on the organization’s advisory board and helps coordinate community outreach.
“It's such a wonderful organization, and I am really proud of the work we have done,” she said.
Sandra Kessler founded Catherine's Closet in memory of East Orange resident Catherine Johnson, who was valedictorian of her class at Clifford Scott High School and aspired to be a physician. When Johnson died in 2002 after the vehicle she was riding in was struck by another car being driven by a 14 year old, Johnson was buried in the prom gown that she never got to wear.
At the time, Johnson’s mother was a client of Kessler’s at Financial Services of New Jersey, which specializes in retirement plans for employees of non-profit organizations. While attending Johnson’s wake, Kessler realized she wanted to honor the young woman in a special way, and established a 501©3 nonprofit that would collect and distribute gowns to teens and adults in need of formalwear.
In addition to collecting approximately 17,000 gowns in the New York and New Jersey area since its inception, Catherine’s Closet has also distributed about $55,000 in scholarships to students who volunteer 15-or-more hours and complete specific service requirements at Catherine’s Closet.
“While Catherine's Closet focuses on dress distribution, we are most proud of the scholarships that we can offer to young girls who volunteer with us,” said Lemieux.
Scholarships are supported by the funds raised through the sale of gowns ($10), shoes ($5) and jewelry ($3) as well as monetary donations.
“Every year, this event gets bigger and bigger, and we are so grateful for all of the support from various communities and businesses throughout New Jersey,” said Lemieux. “Both the volume and quality of dresses that have been donated this year has blown us away.”
According to Lemieux, some of the gowns donated each year have been made by big-name designers like Vera Wang, Jovani, Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors, Armani, Jessica McClintock and others.
For $10 each, those gowns have been sold to teens throughout Essex County as well as Morristown, Elizabeth, Jersey City, Plainfield and beyond.
Johnson once wrote in an essay, "People will know my name not for fame or fortune or out of Vanity, but they will know me because I have helped someone."
Despite her untimely death, Johnson’s dream of helping others has become reality thanks to Catherine’s Closet.
“Our organization is all about giving girls their dream dress for that special occasion; most notably prom, but many others shop with us,” said Lemieux. “All girls and women are welcome. We find that some women come in and need mother-of-the-bride dresses and others need a dress for a class or family reunion. We are thrilled to be able to offer them this opportunity that they might not otherwise have.”
Due to the high quantity of dresses she has received in smaller sizes, Lemieux is currently only able to accept gowns sizes 14 and up.