— Lyn Stoesen, News Staff
Tyleen Caffrey (Photo — Steve Rouse)
It's a teenage rite of spring: picking out the perfect prom dress for a magical night of dancing and romance. But for some girls, it's not as easy as just wandering the aisles and finding what strikes one's fancy. NASW member and social work student Tyleen Caffrey decided to do something about that.
Caffrey, an MSW student at the University of Southern Mississippi, started a project that collected donated prom dresses to give to girls in foster care. After the project launched, it expanded to reach other youth as well. Altogether, the project has distributed about 75 dresses and provided 25 girls with hair styling and makeovers. As the News went to press, more dresses were being distributed.
Caffrey, 32, was a foster child herself. Her foster parents were unable to afford a prom dress for her, but her foster mother was able to make one. She realized, however, that not all children in foster care would have that option. She developed the plan in October with the Southern Miss Student Association of Social Workers and began collecting dresses.
The response was overwhelming. Her original projections estimated the project would serve about 50 girls, with hair styling and makeup for 10 of those girls. "We collected between 450 and 500 dress altogether," she said. "And every girl who came through [the Department of Human Services] got a full makeover.
"We received over $1,000 in cash donations and everything from corsages and boutonnieres to jewelry and shoes," Caffrey noted. "It blossomed — it was overwhelming but wonderful; the community really responded."
The project used a truck to bring dresses to sites around the state, in collaboration with DHS. "It was really fun to take them into the truck and show them the dresses," Caffrey recalled. She said the visits also gave project volunteers an opportunity to mentor some of the girls who came to try on the dresses.
After distributing dresses through DHS, the project contacted the media and other organizations, such as the Girl Scouts and Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, to reach out to other girls who might need dresses. They held a large event with dresses displayed on racks that drew about 25 participants.
Caffrey, who is scheduled to graduate with her MSW on May 9, said she hopes the project will continue. She envisions a partnership with local community organizations and plans to engage other university organizations as well, including students from fashion and merchandizing, media and marketing and business departments.
"I'm hoping to keep it going," she said. "If I serve one girl, it's all well worth it."
Caffrey has been honored for her work on the project. She was presented with the Mississippi Chapter's Claire Nowlin Graduate Student of the Year Award and was featured in the Hattiesburg American newspaper as one of 12 people who have made a difference in the community.