‘It’s more than the dress’

Alumn Abby Wilson created a nonprofit organization in the early 2000s to give out free prom dresses— and it’s still impacting students today.


Chiara Arendt

Picking out a dress, Abby Wilson looks through the “glam rack.” The glam rack is a rack of dresses that are unique, with different kinds of patterns, colors, and designs. Usually, non-traditional prom dresses go here.

Packing up for college and getting ready to move out, Abby Wilson, class of 2003, spotted her pink dress from her junior year of prom. Prom is a rite of passage for many high schoolers: those one or two nights where they would plan for weeks, spend hours getting ready with their friends, going out in limos, and spend the night with peers they had been in school with since kindergarten. 

Wilson had been dreaming and looking forward to going to prom— getting her first floor length dress, going out with friends, and most of all, the feeling. 

“I just remember feeling really confident, beautiful, and mature,” Wilson said. “It made me feel like I was getting ready for college and that kind of thing.”

I really wanted the dress to have another chance to dance.

— Abby Wilson

Wilson was the youngest in her family, with three brothers and no younger sisters or friends to pass on her dress to.

“I really wanted the dress to have another chance to dance,” Wilson said. “I wanted it to go to another high school girl or someone who would be able to wear it for their prom.”

Wilson and her mother, Sally Egland, looked for organizations to donate the dress to to make sure it would be used again in a future students prom. But at the time, there were a limited number of nonprofits that did that. 

So, they started their own.

“Prom was a rite of passage for us,” Wilson said. “I think with my older siblings, I had seen them all go off to prom and I just knew that it was like the last hurrah of [high] school, and the dress was sentimental to me. So, that’s how we got started.”

The original plan was simply to do a dress drive for one year, and spread the word through friends and family in the area. They have run the prom dress drive for 20 years now, through their nonprofit organization, Abby’s Closet, and have expanded to offering scholarships to high school seniors. 

When Wilson created the nonprofit, she was a freshman in college running it alongside her mom, crediting her mom for getting it off the ground. 

“We joked in the beginning because we bought the book ‘Nonprofit For Dummies,’” Wilson said. “I would come home for board meetings or calling [for the nonprofit], but my mom was the one getting it running. She did a lot of research into how to become a nonprofit and what it takes.”

Abby’s Closet gets their dresses from various sponsors and businesses throughout the state, providing drop-off areas for prom dress to take back to Abby’s Closet.

“We face a year of planning for a weekend of giving,” Wilson explained. “We have places on our website for donation drop-off. We get dresses from bridal salons all over the country, donations from individuals, and we got a huge donation from Macy’s [in 2020], We got 4,000 dresses from them, which were brand new dresses. It wasn’t [because of] COVID-19, but I think it was their leftover inventory. We also have dress drives where businesses and individuals will just collect dresses and donate them.”

During the convention events each year, there are 7,000 to 8,000 dresses to choose from, varying in styles, lengths, patterns, with sizes ranging from 0/2 to 22/24 and beyond. 

“I think that’s what makes it really unique for students,” Wilson said. “I just went shopping recently for a dress and it was like, if you don’t like the seasonal trend or whatever there aren’t a lot of options unless you shop online, you know? So it’s really cool at Abby’s Closet where it’s like, the selection is amazing. And you can find something that fits your style.”

For Wilson, it all comes down to the feeling.

“It’s more than the dress,” Wilson said. “And the dress is awesome. It’s when people find the dress, something happens— we like to call it the twirl effect, where people are standing up a little bit taller, and they feel beautiful. They look confident, it’s the power of the dress.”

Abby’s Closet has been helping students find prom dresses for years, and Wilson finds the twirl moment the most rewarding part.

Beaverton students, including an Abby’s Closet Student Advisory Board member, look through dresses to wear for news appearances in the coming week to promote the event. (Chiara Arendt)

“I love going in. I kind of just float around the event,” Wilson said. “And it’s so fun to kind of go through the process with someone and see how excited they feel and look when they find that dress and they’re twirling around and jumping. Like sometimes they’re having a really special moment with their mom, or maybe they’ve brought their sister or something, and it’s just cool to see.” 

Wilson is at the event throughout the weekend, and popping around and checking in on people as needed.

“I always end up with really cool stories of women that I’ve met throughout the weekend,” Wilson said. “I helped this gal one year and she was by herself, but she was looking through the dresses and just kind of looked down, or maybe she was having a hard time. So I was like ‘Whoa, are you having a hard time finding a dress? I’d love to help,’ and she didn’t have any hair and I didn’t really think much of it.”

At the time, the girl was a junior in high school who had cancer and was going through chemotherapy. 

“I just remember her being like ‘I’m just so tired but like, I want to find a prom dress but I don’t feel beautiful,’” Wilson said. 

So Wilson started to help her find dresses, and got to know her story.

“She finally found this awesome dress and I remember looking in the mirror and I was zipping it up, and she just was crying. And I was like this is the best thing ever and she just says, ‘I just feel normal today. Like I feel totally normal,’” Wilson said. “It was a year or two later. I was at the event and I got a slap on the shoulder. And she looked really familiar, and it was this girl. She’d come back and she had her hair grown back a little bit. She had these little blonde curls I remember, and she reintroduced herself and it was the same girl she’s like, ‘I beat cancer. I’m back getting a prom dress.’”

The event hosts students from Oregon and Washington, once a year on a weekend at the Oregon Convention Center. 

Each year, the weekend of prom dress giveaway is around the second weekend of March. The event is held together by student and parent volunteers, helping to prepare and tear down the event to keep it running smoothly.

But, for some schools in eastern Oregon and northern Washington, making the journey is sometimes not possible. Abby’s Closet has a program called Sharing The Love, where they donate dresses directly to high schools or nonprofit organizations in Oregon and Washington for easier access and distribution to students. Since then, around 6,000 dresses have been donated solely through Sharing The Love. 

“We did have some schools reach out to us [during COVID-19] saying they were still having a prom or they were doing smaller events,” Wilson said. “So through Sharing The Love, we gave them dresses and allowed them to distribute it to some students whose parents might have organized a dance in a cul de sac.”

After Wilson and Egland’s first year of running Abby’s Closet, they realized to keep doing this they needed to figure out the next steps.

“My mom and I kept being like, ‘prom is super important,’” Wilson said. “But what’s next in everyone’s lives? We just kept coming back to education being just such an important part. It’s such a big value [we hold]. We want to make sure students are thinking about their future and dreaming big. We wanted to find [a student] who embodied the spirit and mission of Abby’s Closet, being well rounded, involved in their community, and being a good well rounded gal.”

The scholarship program started in 2011, and since then, 34 scholarships coming to a total of $54,000 have been given out. The organization now gives out four scholarships per year. One is for a student planning to go to a four year college or university, one for a student planning to go to community college, and one for a student planning to go to trade school. The fourth scholarship is a memorial scholarship for a past board member who passed away, started by her husband and family. The scholarship is for a student who is focused on going into healthcare, as the board member was a nurse.

“It’s more than the dress,” Wilson said. “Yes, we’re giving away prom dresses, but, like I said, we’re also really focused on education and empowerment.”


For more information on registration or volunteering at the upcoming event, visit https://www.abbyscloset.org/giveaway and stay up to date on Abby’s Closet activities on their Instagram @abbysclosetpdx.