Prom season is here. In fact, junior prom for Pilgrim High School students is on Friday, with the senior prom happening next week on the 24th. It is an event that, for many high schoolers, transcends a simple dance – something that is built up as the ultimate social experience and has been immortalized as among the most important high school experiences through countless iconic films and television shows.
On top of that existential pressure, students must also worry about being able to afford the ticket to go, and often must ask their families for help to afford the rental of a dress or suit that can range anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars, depending on the brand and style.
This adds up to a possibly deflating or embarrassing experience for students who come from modest economic means, or for those whose families are struggling. They’re left with two options – to forego the prom and miss out on something that they’re told through popular media is crucially important, or to plead with parents to find some way to carve out enough money to make sure they can participate.
But Heidi Fanion, Warwick’s most tenured social worker, provides a third choice.
For the second year now, Fanion has filled her office at Pilgrim with dozens of dresses – 52 at the time of this writing, in fact – and is offering them for the unbeatable price of free to anybody who needs one.
She calls the endeavor “Heidi’s Boutique,” and with a mannequin set up outside the office (a donation from her friend Margaret, whom she named Francesca) that is adorned with new dresses on a rotating basis, plus a makeshift changing area created with privacy screens she brought in on her own, it’s as close to a high-end dress boutique experience as you can get within a school.
“I've talked to a lot of students and it's taken a lot for them just to be able to get a ticket, let alone what else goes with it,” Fanion said, with racks full of dresses accenting her office in a rainbow of flair.
With a ticket price to prom going for $75, and dresses and suits costing hundreds of dollars, Fanion said that offering the dresses for free can take care of the most expensive item on the list to enable more students to attend. She encourages even students who can perhaps afford a dress on their own to inquire about the free dresses.
“If you're able to get one here, you can save your money for a ticket or something else, or you can spread the word and let somebody who might not know or might not have money to come on in,” she said.
These aren’t bargain bin dresses either, Fanion stresses. The lowest ticket item is a clearance find that would cost $99 to buy. Most of the other dresses, and she has them available in every size from 0 to 24, range in retail price from $450 to $750. Fanion received them via donation from a community action group in Pawtucket, and it has grown significantly since last year.
“I need the Ellen DeGeneres show to donate a POD or something,” she joked, talking about where she would store the dresses if the collection continues to grow.
Fanion has been at Pilgrim going on four years now, and has been in Warwick for over 20 years. Her philanthropic efforts to help students in need goes beyond glamming them up for prom, too.
Since 2008, back when she was splitting time between four different elementary schools, she has also been operating her own personal pantry called Heidi’s Helping Hands, which supplies every different hygienic product imaginable, from toothpaste and deodorant to diapers and toilet paper – everything that cannot be purchased by an EBT card.
Fanion has a stockpile of over 3,000 of these items in large cabinets in her office. She puts out a basket of commonly-needed items, like deodorant, for anyone to grab as needed – which is helpful for many, she says, as her office is located right down the hall from the gym.
The pantry items are available to any student throughout the district, and families can send a wish list to Fanion of items that are most needed. It is a fitting option to go along with the prom dress endeavor.
“If I can do one thing for a student to be able to go [to prom], well this is it,” she said. “If they need some shampoo and some soap and deodorant to go along with it, well then they've got that too. If they want to go, I want them to feel as comfortable and refreshed as they can be.”
Fanion said the boutique will remain open up until the day of senior prom, May 24, but she urges any student without a dress to inquire sooner rather than later, as alterations might need to be made on the dress. There are also a limited number of suits available as well, although that’s an area she’s hoping to expand upon in terms of available options in future years. All items may also be available to Toll Gate High School students as well, they simply need to reach out.
Moving forward, Fanion hopes that the boutique can continue to grow, and that perhaps even a student can take on helping with the operations. Throughout the years, she has always identified with students whose families are under financial stress, and providing this option is one way to ease that burden, especially for such an important and costly event.
“I think I've always been this way,” she said of her philanthropy. “There's always a need. You and I both are one paycheck away from being in need too at any given time. I've always believed that and I've always felt that.”
Whether you need a new toothbrush, a stick of deodorant or a radiant gown for prom night, contact Heidi Fanion to set up an appointment at 401-298-6590 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.