School dances aren't cheap. Depending on the dress, homecoming frocks can cost hundreds of dollars — an impossible price tag for many low-income girls and their families.
Now, a nonprofit group is donating new, never-worn designer gowns to underprivileged girls around the country so that girls can attend homecoming, prom and other school functions in the dress of their dreams.
The Boston-based charity, The Believe in Yourself project, is the brainchild of Sam Sisakhti, 35, who runs the popular online fashion retailer UsTrendy. It all started when he decided to give away some sample dresses from his business.
“I used to give the clothing samples to celebrities, and then a few years ago I’m like, ‘Celebrities have enough clothes,’” Sisakhti told TODAY Style. “So I started going into low-income areas and dropping off dresses. They would jump around and call me Santa Claus.
“The appreciation on the girls’ faces was incredible,” he continued. “A lot of them said they’d never had a new item before. And they were really just excited and (said) they had the confidence now to go to their first dance.”
Sisakhti realized he was onto something, and in January 2017, he started a foundation to help connect students around the country with designer gowns. So far, he says he has given away “several thousand” dresses to girls ages 11 to 19.
Typically, it works like this: A local Boys & Girls Club, or another community organization, compiles a list of low-income girls in need of dresses. The girls provide their sizes and choose the style and color of dress they prefer, then they get together in one location to pick up their brand-new gowns.
Up until now, Sisakhti has been personally buying the dresses and hand-delivering them to Boys and Girls Clubs, housing projects and after-school groups in Boston, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and other cities. Now that Believe in Yourself is an officially recognized charity, however, Sisakhti can accept outside donations and begin to expand operations.
People often ask if they can donate their gently used dresses to the foundation, but for Sisakhti, dealing only with brand-new dresses is part of what makes his project so successful.
“One thing that the girls got so excited about was that it was a brand-new item that they requested, with the tags on,” Sisakhti told TODAY Style. “They really felt like this was really cool, because a lot of them had said their clothes were hand-me-downs or used.”
And Sisakhti hopes to help girls deal with life beyond high school dances. When he meets with students, he also brings in mentors and inspiring speakers to talk with the girls about dealing with cyberbullying, body confidence and peer pressure.
This year, The Believe in Yourself project is also rolling out a program that allows girls to receive more dresses if they achieve their personal goals; anything from getting a better chemistry grade to working hard on their school basketball team. Mentors will check in with girls four or five times throughout the school year to see how things are going, Sisakhti says.
“We track their progress and kind of encourage them to achieve that goal,” Sisakhti said. “If they show that progress, we give them more dresses as kind of an incentive to move forward.”
So far, this incentive program has rolled out in a few Boys & Girls Clubs around the country, with hopes to expand down the line. In the meantime, though, Sisakhti is working hard to match low-income girls around the country with their dream dresses.
“My goal is to do 10,000 by the end of the year,” he said. “I really think we can get there.”