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JAMES: Cinderella Project's support extends beyond prom

“Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the street; it has to do with ideas, the way we live and what is happening.

“Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the street; it has to do with ideas, the way we live and what is happening.”
­– Coco Chanel

Fashion designer Coco Chanel almost gets it but she doesn’t come close enough for far too many of today’s young people who are living at or below the poverty line in British Columbia.

And that explains why the Cinderella Project, co-founded in 1999 by West Vancouver’s Heather MacKenzie, is so very important to an annual 30 to 40 young people right here on the North Shore.

But first a short story...

As a young girl in London, England, in addition to books and jigsaw puzzles my Christmas usually meant gifts of a sweater, some socks and other clothing. Often, they were items my mother had secretly knit or sewn in the evenings after my brother and I were safely in bed.

Those simple gifts were valued all the more because they were a welcome change from the much disliked uniform I had to wear at the all-girls high school I attended from age 12. Why so disliked? Well, my reaction was mostly caused by the summer uniform.

The dresses were a red or blue cotton check pattern and the hat was a fake straw panama adorned by the required red ribbon and school crest. But the real problem was that my frugal — not poor, just careful — parents knew they could do better than buy from the school’s supplier.

I had the cotton dresses alright, just not in the right colours and certainly not the right school check. As for the hat – then, as now, boys’ hats cost less to buy, so that’s what my parents bought. Then they steamed and reshaped the higher crown, added a red ribbon and voila!

I was the odd girl out; self-esteem, zero.

Why tell you this? Well it’s because I’d like you to hold up the image of that well-cared-for but embarrassed young girl and imagine how 20 to 25 per cent of today’s youth in this province, boys and girls, must feel as they try to weather their young adulthood while living homeless or in poverty — absent healthy meals, the “in” clothes and all the high-tech gear common to their classmates.

I cannot stress it enough — the work being done by Heather MacKenzie and by Karem Planas, teacher Pat Ponti and 400 other volunteer “fairy godmothers” is an essential and wonderfully caring service. It’s a service that gives those kids a helping hand and a major boost to their self-esteem.

Every dollar donated, every lightly used grad dress, shoes or other item of clothing goes directly to the youth registered with the Cinderella Project. Many are referred by school principals, teachers and counsellors.

“These kids don’t decide to live this way,” said MacKenzie. “Some of them are going to school and then working as baristas or office cleaners until late at night. They live the way they do because they have no alternative, or they’re helping to support their families. Every day is one painful choice after another. All we try to do is mentor and support them through to graduation,” she explained.

As one grateful mother wrote, for her “at-risk daughter to even fathom she would be alive and graduating is amazing. The Cinderella Project was the icing on the cake and a much-needed self-esteem boost … something she will never forget.”

That the Cinderella Project is a resounding success is shown by the fact that it is mushrooming throughout the Lower Mainland and beyond. Many of its “graduates” become connected to it for life and return as volunteer mentors to the youth who follow them. Another little known fact is that donations have enabled more than $100,000 in project bursaries. Donations fill starter backpacks with basic personal care items and other necessities — anything to boost kids’ self-esteem, health and the way they feel inside.

Beginning in January and with support from the North Shore’s Kiwanis and Soroptimist clubs, plus a significant contribution from an anonymous donor, the Cinderella Project will again be holding its annual drive to collect prom-style and graduation dresses, as well as more formal wear for young guy “Cinderfellas.”

So, if you are in the mood for giving this holiday season, your contact with the Cinderella Project at would be most welcome.

“Our work is like seeing dozens of tiny glowing embers and blowing on them until they come back to life,” MacKenzie said.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year, everyone!

After 16 years with the multi-disciplinary Perinatal Programme of B.C. and later in various endeavours in the growing high-tech industry, Elizabeth James now connects the dots every second Wednesday on local, regional and provincial issues. She can be reached via email at [email protected].

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