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Cinderella Project celebrates its sweet 16

Non-profit organization seeks donations of toiletries

Imagine running a marathon with no shoes, no water and no supporters to cheer you along the way.

Now strap on a heavy backpack and picture people hurling stones at you and criticizing you as you struggle towards the finish line.

For the 200 at-risk teens the Cinderella Project supports each year, getting through high school can feel a bit like this, says the charity's founder Heather MacKenzie. Indeed, there are hills and valleys for all students on their respective paths to graduation, but for those living in poverty, who may not have healthy family infrastructure, access to proper nutrition, or even a bed to sleep in at night, making it to the finish line is that much harder.

"How can we as a community expect success from these kids, right?" asks MacKenzie.

Wanting to do something tangible to help break the cycle of poverty, the West Vancouver resident established the Cinderella Project in 1999. The nonprofit organization, which celebrates its "sweet 16" birthday this year, provides formal wear and accessories to underprivileged graduates who would otherwise not be able to attend their high school graduation celebrations.

Every year, before Spring Break, the organization holds a Boutique Day at a local hotel. At this event, the "Cinderellas" and "Cinderfellas" are each paired with a volunteer mentor and together they choose a graduation outfit, get their hair and makeup done, and pose for professional photos. MacKenzie stresses that Boutique Day is about much more than picking a dress or suit. It's about peers and role models joining together to celebrate the students' achievements and motivate them toward graduation.

"This day, they truly get to shed all of that difficult stuff and have a beautiful day in the sun," MacKenzie says.

Every student goes home with a care package full of essential toiletries. This year, however, one of the organization's major care package donors is unable to contribute, so volunteers are holding a last-minute drive to collect needed personal care items: deodorant, shampoo, conditioner, soap, lotion, socks, razors and shaving cream. People are invited to drop off unused and unexpired items now until Feb. 10 at West Vancouver United Church, care of the Cinderella Project.

"We would like it to be something that you would be happy if your child was using it," MacKenzie says, adding that the organization is also always in need of girls' dresses in size 14 or larger, boys' dress shirts with small neck sizes and nutritious packaged food, such as protein bars, that students can bring to school.

Since its launch, the Cinderella Project has supported more than 3,000 teens. In addition to preparing students to attend their grad festivities, the organization also distributes financial awards, laptop computers and hairdressing scholarships.

The Cinderellas and Cinderfellas come from 70 schools across the Lower Mainland, Sea-to-Sky corridor and Sunshine Coast, including seemingly affluent communities such as the North Shore.

"About 20 per cent of the kids, so of the 200, on an average year, about 40 would be from the North Shore," MacKenzie says.

All the students are on track to graduate in the spring and have been nominated by a counsellor, principal or social worker.

"We package this not as a charity, but as an award for their incredible courage, perseverance, resilience, and their want to complete high school."

Some 400 volunteers, including hairstylists, makeup artists, deejays, seamstresses, tailors, photographers, and mentors donate their time and services to make Boutique Day a reality for the youth.

"This isn't just a day when a kid gets a dress. This really is about resurrecting a dream and breaking the cycle of poverty as a result."

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