- C Johnston
Michelle Simon: Discovering Princesses
“Fifteen years ago, we would never have imagined that today we’d be buried in dresses!” Michelle Simon laughs. But that’s exactly what she and her husband Don are: buried in dresses.
They both work full time and have family responsibilities – with the youngest child being Cadon, aged 11 and also Shane, who’s 20 and Candace, 23. Beyond those responsibilities, they spend a lot of time making the world a better pace for hundreds of teenage girls. Michelle and Don run Bless A Dress, which collects, sorts and provides FREE used, but beautiful dresses for young girls to wear to the prom or other formal event. Most of the dresses have only been worn once.
And the need is great. While prom is so often a high school girl’s dream, it’s also very expensive. The dress, along with any alterations, shoes and accessories, can be a huge financial burden that prohibits girls from experiencing their dreams. But Bless A Dress has it all – thousands of gowns, and seamstresses to make on-the-site alterations. It provides shoes and jewelry, too. And there is absolutely no cost to the girls.
As Michelle explains, it all started in 2015, when radio station K-Love hosted a Bless A Dress event at a small church in Butler, which is just north of Pittsburgh, PA. Both Michelle and Don volunteered to help at the event, which was held on Friday night and Saturday morning. Michelle helped young girls find their special dresses while Don helped at the table near the exit.
A rather rough-looking man in a flannel shirt stopped at the table to talk to Don. His daughter was holding a lovely, like-new prom dress and he pulled his checkbook out of his pocket. “What do I owe you?” the man wanted to know.
Don told the father he didn’t owe anything. The dress was a gift. The man pulled in a long breath as tears came to his eyes. Things hadn’t been easy for them, he explained. The man’s wife had recently died and the family was in a tough financial situation. But his daughter deserved to fulfill her dream of a beautiful dress for her high school prom. The dress was indeed a blessing.
“Every girl is special and deserves to be treated like a princess,” Michelle says.
They loved their first day helping dreams come true and came back the next day to volunteer once again. They were surprised when, at the close of the event, the organizer of the event was crying. She said this would be the last year for the event. It just wasn’t the success that they thought it would be, with only about a hundred girls attending.
“This has to continue,” both Michelle and Don agreed. And, because they saw it as the only way Bless A Dress could continue, they offered to run it.
They didn’t just have the desire to help Bless A Dress continue, they had the know-how. The Simons had already been leading an operation to benefit others. After becoming involved in a charity supported by their three-year-old son’s preschool in 2015, they had stepped up to do more.
That organization is Soles for Jesus, and they serve as Pennsylvania representatives, heading up the local effort to collect and provide new or gently worn shoes to people in Africa.
Since they first started, they’ve provided about 85,000 pairs of shoes to people who need them.
Michelle says, “I remember being mortified when I realized how many extra pairs of shoes were in my house – just sitting there. In Africa, people will walk three days for a pair of shoes. The need is tremendous!”
They both knew that their volunteer work on Soles for Jesus would help them with Bless A Dress.
Don, who is Regional Manager of Mr. Magic Carwash (previously, Jerry’s Car Wash) already had an established, extensive list of drop-off locations, including the car washes, that have been used for year-round shoe collections.
They’d been working with a generous family-owned storage business, Stor N Lock, that was already donating a storage unit to house the shoes before they were packaged and shipped to Wisconsin for their trip to Africa.
They already had a strong network of non-profit organizations, churches and volunteers through Soles for Jesus. Michelle’s heart told her she could make Bless A Dress happen.
The tug on Michelle’s heart is a familiar one to her. She lives a life focused on serving others. And at the core of it is her faith in Christ and obedience to following him.
“This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you.”
– John 15:12
Michelle explains, “My faith leads me to serve others. God puts things on each of our hearts. It’s like I can hear Him saying, ‘Here ya go, kiddo! Get it done!’”
“People who cross our paths every day are not random,” she continues. “God puts them there. It’s up to each of us to see them and love them. I believe that it isn’t your words that will bring people to Jesus, it is your actions!”
So in 2016, a Bless A Dress event was held with Michelle and Don at the helm. As it grew, they moved from one church to another. Last year, they were given space at the Pittsburgh Indoor Sports Arena in Harmar.
In 2022, there were 3,000 dresses available, and over 800 girls selected a dress.
The girls are all matched with a personal shopping assistant to help them find the dress of their dreams. Each girl is treated with dignity and is appreciated by everyone in attendance. As Michelle would say, “just as a princess should be treated.” And girls have shared that the event is magical, way beyond their expectations.
A team of five seamstresses from the Topaz Thimble donate their time to provide on-site alterations. After picking a dress, the girl will stand on a pedestal so that the length can be checked. If a pinch needs to be taken in or out, or any other tucks need to be made, the seamstress does the work right away. The dress fits perfectly before the girl leaves.
And that’s not all. The girls can get shoes – either fancy or plain, whatever they like – to match their dress. And for the finishing touch, they can select jewelry as well. Again, this is all at no cost.
“We’re always thinking of what more we can do,” Michelle says.
She now has hair and make-up stylists working with the girls as they stand in line. The stylists provide tips and demonstrations on getting ready for their special occasion.
Julie Polcyn, who has volunteered for several years and is planning to continue, loves what happens at Bless A Dress. “The girls come in and don’t know what to expect, so we make them feel welcome immediately. We find out what they want so we can help them find just the right dress. The biggest thing we can do is to encourage them, be their cheerleaders. We let them know they’re beautiful. And each girl is!”
Sometimes, the dress they need is not for a prom, but a different event. Julie remembers helping a young couple who were getting married. They didn’t have a lot of money to spare, but wanted their wedding to be special. The bride-to-be was hoping for a white or champagne-colored dress, and Julie was able to help her find a beautiful one. It needed some alterations, made on the spot, and the young lady walked out with a perfect wedding gown, shoes and jewelry.
Julie says, “Not everyone is able to have a balloon-over-Paris wedding. This is real life. Being able to treat this woman with dignity and help her to look and feel beautiful on her wedding day is a privilege that brings tears to my eyes.”
It’s Michelle Simon who makes all this possible, Julie says. “Michelle is an angel, one of the sweetest people I know. Her life is all about giving to others, without thought. Her life is service. And you know? She doesn’t realize how incredible she is.”
Those sentiments are echoed by many, especially by those who come into contact with Michelle through this process. One such person is Michelle Longmore, whose daughter Paige got a prom gown through Bless A Dress.
While they’re not poor, the mom explains, neither are they rich. “We’re middle class, and my husband and I both work. Our dollars count. So when my daughter went prom shopping with her friends and almost spent three hundred dollars on a dress, we had to consider if it was worth it. Spending that much money for a dress to wear one night just doesn’t make sense.”
She says that, fortunately, her daughter has a lot of common sense and agreed to go to Bless A Dress as an alternative. That’s what they did, and they found the perfect dress, shoes and jewelry. Success … almost!
They got the dress in 2020, just before everything shut down because of Covid. Her prom was cancelled. But, her mother says, Bless A Dress once again came in to save the day.
A year later, Paige’s tastes had changed, and she was able to trade in the dress she didn’t wear for another dress to wear to her 2021 senior prom. They were both blue, and so the shoes and jewelry still worked.
Paige’s long-anticipated prom was wonderful. And afterwards, she had the dress cleaned and donated back, along with the shoes and jewelry, to Bless A Dress.
“It’s a neat, neat, neat event!” says Michelle Longmore. “I wish more people would understand that it’s not only for the needy, but for everyone who wants to use their resources wisely. And what a great way to teach kids the responsibility and value of money!”
Michelle Simon agrees. “We don’t require proof of financial need. If you want to pay hundreds of dollars for a dress that is worn one night, you won’t be coming to Bless A Dress. But for anyone who wants to find a magical dress without paying hundreds, we have so many choices for you.”
Last year, Michelle held a closed event for girls from the School for the Deaf. She also brought in sign language interpreters to help them find their dresses, shoes and jewelry. “They felt loved and important,” Michelle says. “And that’s exactly what they are!”
Occasionally, Michelle is asked if she could start a companion event for boys to acquire prom clothing. She can’t, she says. She and her husband Don are volunteers, and so is everyone who helps them. They can’t stretch any further.
But this year Michelle is starting something new. She is asking for donations of ties, as well. So when a girl gets a dress, she can also get a matching tie to give to her date.
Donations of dresses, shoes, jewelry and ties are needed for Bless A Dress. There are 29 drop-off locations in western Pennsylvania and Morgantown, West Virginia, with more information below.
Volunteers are also needed for everything that’s involved, which includes moving and sorting the merchandise, setting up and displaying it, directing traffic flow, assisting shoppers, tearing down and packing up, and much more.
The next Bless A Dress date is coming up for girls looking for their dream dress, as well as volunteers.
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”
- Matthew 25:40
Julie Polcyn describes volunteering for Bless A Dress as fun, exhilarating and rewarding. “Helping out is like being in a Cinderella movie. We help girls, one at a time, realize they are a princess.”
Find drop-off locations, updates and information on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/blessadress.
To volunteer or for more information contact Michelle at Blessadress@yahoo.com.