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They made prom possible for girls in need. Now, it's their last dance

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Pam Philipp, known as the head fairy godmother, sorts jewelry.
Pam Philipp, known as the head fairy godmother, smiles as she sorts jewelry March 6, 2019, in preparation for the final princess event in Edina this weekend.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

After playing fairy godmother to more than 10,000 girls over the past decade, Pam Philipp is packing away her magic wand.    

     Since 2007, the founder of Operation Glass Slipper and her legion of volunteers have made prom dreams come true for underprivileged girls by providing them with dresses, shoes and accessories — all free of charge.    

      But midnight is striking. This weekend's "princess event" at Southdale Mall in Edina will be the nonprofit's last, not because the program has waned in popularity but because Philipp and her core group of nine volunteers are getting on in age or are battling health problems. 

The work, though it seems like it comes together by magic, is hard.      

Some of the 3,000 prom dresses are hung in Southdale Center.
Some of the 3,000 prom dresses are hung at Southdale Center in Edina in preparation for the final princess event.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

    Volunteers collect donated dresses year-round, storing them at a West St. Paul warehouse. They clean, alter and rebead them and then hold dress sales throughout the year to raise money for accessories. They order and sort thousands of shoes, jewelry and purses.      

    "We work every day at the warehouse and you're on cement for four to five hours at a time," Philipp, 68, said.    

      "(One volunteer) has had hip surgery, shoulder surgery. Another has had shoulder surgery, so it's very hard for them to be lifting these heavy dresses and hanging them on racks that are taller than us," she said. "I'm having trouble with my legs ... we're all sort of suffering these physical ailments and so it's like, it's just kind of time."        

 

Help from a fairy godmother

    Philipp dreamed up Operation Glass Slipper after reading a magazine article about a Chicago teenager who collected donated prom dresses for Hurricane Katrina victims. It struck her that there were deserving girls in Minnesota who couldn't attend their proms because of the cost.      

    "I ran into my teen's room and said, 'We can do this here!' " she said.    

Michelle Keefe and Nancy Corcoran sort shoes by size and color.
Michelle Keefe (front) and Nancy Corcoran, both of Apple Valley, sort shoes by size and color.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

  That first year, they outfitted 500 Minnesota girls with gently worn and new prom dresses that had been donated by bridal shops and community members. The next, 750. 

Since then, about 1,000 teens have shown up annually during the princess events to say yes to the dress.        

  At the events, each teen is assigned a "fairy godmother," who helps them select a dress from the thousands available. This year, the nonprofit has more than 3,000 on hand.

Once that's done, the dress can be measured for alterations — which are done by volunteer seamstresses — and then girls can try on shoes and pick a purse and two pieces of jewelry.    

      Providing the entire outfit is "about treating (the teens) like a princess," said longtime volunteer Karen Tiedens.       

Heather Rowe sorts handbags to prepare for the princess event.
Heather Rowe of St. Paul sorts handbags as she helps prepare for the princess event. Rowe says she enjoys helping girls who wouldn't typically be able to get prom dresses "be just as special as everybody else."
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

  "We want them to leave here and not have to really think about what they're going to have to pay for or do on their own before prom," she said.    

      The big dance has become increasingly expensive for students and their families. A 2015 survey from Visa found that parents and teens were spending an average of $919 on the dance on everything from clothing to tickets, flowers, pictures, food and transportation.      

    "It all adds up. For a family that's debating gas, food and giving money for prom, that prom thing is going to be way down on the list," Philipp said. "We make it possible that they can go and blend in and have a wonderful time with a group or a date and they've done this, that big high experience at prom, they were able to go and participate."        

  Houa Moua went through the program in 2010 and said the experience made prom that much more magical.        

  The 2010 Harding High School graduate from St. Paul said she was anti-dress back then and rarely bought them — especially dresses that cost hundreds of dollars. She said she probably would have ended up wearing someone else's gown.        

Volunteer Karen Tiedens of Lake Elmo organizes jeweled chokers.
Volunteer Karen Tiedens of Lake Elmo organizes jeweled chokers.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

  "It wouldn't have been special. I wouldn't have had a dress that was all mine," she said.      

    Instead, Moua got to feel something she had never experienced before during her fitting.        

  "In all those princess movies you see, when the princess comes out in her pretty dress in her moment and everyone's looking at her all in awe, that's the feeling I had," she said.    

      It's had such a lasting effect on her that she has volunteered almost every year since then in an effort to give other girls the same experience. She even decided to skip an important conference in California this year in order to volunteer.          

And when she shows up for her shifts this weekend, she'll be wearing the prom dress she picked out all those years ago.        

 

Looking for a miracle

    Though Philipp says she's walking away from Operation Glass Slipper, she's hoping that someone out there is interested in keeping the program afloat. She's had about 19 inquiries so far, but nobody has committed yet.        

Pam Philipp looks through prom dresses.
Pam Philipp looks through prom dresses ahead of the final princess event this weekend at Southdale.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

  Philipp said the program as it currently operates may be too intimidating for another person or group.        

  "I think we have to back down in what we expect. A group coming in is not going to do what we do," she said.        

  A future Operation Glass Slipper might limit the number of girls it serves. Or it won't hold the regular dress sales like they do now.    

      Moua, the volunteer, is hoping for a miracle.      

    "This program is so precious," she said. "It's become a huge deal in Minnesota, and so for future high schoolers to not be able to have this experience, that's a shame."          

If you go

What: The "princess event," Operation Glass Slipper          

When: 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. Sunday        

  Where: Southdale Mall, Edina. Find the space on the second floor under Dave & Buster's.          

Who: Open to all girls in ninth grade through 12th grade. Schedule an appointment here. Walk-ins are welcome Sunday with a student ID and a parent or guardian.          

Interested in volunteering? Sign up here.

Dress sale: Operation Glass Slipper will hold a final dress sale featuring prom, pageant, cocktail, gala and bridesmaid gowns beginning next week at Signal Hills Shopping Center in West St. Paul. Prices will range from $2.50 to $249. 

• 12 p.m. to 6 p.m., March 22

• 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., March 23

• 12 p.m. to 4 p.m., March 24

• 12 p.m. to 6 p.m., March 29

• 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., March 30

• 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. March 31

MPR News' Tom Crann contributed to this report.