Justine Clark-Lomax remembers the day well.

She’d piled 10 girls—high school seniors—into a Cincinnati State van and was ferrying them to the O’Bryonville storefront that houses Kenzie’s Closet, a nonprofit group that provides prom dresses and accessories for girls from families in severe financial distress.

Clark-Lomax is Cincinnati State’s director of Upward Bound, a college readiness program for first-generation low-income high school students. And every year, she makes this crosstown trek with a couple of dozen young women.

The girls were understandably excited. This was new territory for them. But even so, their anticipation is often mixed with a little anxiety.

For most, though, Kenzie’s Closet is everything they had hoped. They’re treated like “real” customers. And rather than finding a showroom with castoff dresses—Kenzie’s Closet describes them as “gently used”—they find a showroom filled with dresses whose retail value would be far beyond their means. They’re astounded.

“I remember one young lady telling me ‘I thought we were going to get smack,’” laughs Clark-Lomax. “She thought the dresses would be cheap and unfashionable. Let me tell you, they’re not. These girls are amazed. And when they put those dresses on, they’re transformed.”

Victoria Perkins, a career specialist at Western Hills University High School, has seen the same scene play out time after time during the nine years she has taken students to Kenzie’s Closet.

“For many of my students, this is something they’ve never experienced before,” says Perkins. “They often have jobs. But the money they make isn’t going to iPhones or fancy clothes. It goes toward household bills, toward keeping the light and water on. It’s heart-wrenching.”

But the opportunity to dress “correctly” for prom means the world to them.

For those of us out in the “real” world—meaning our last proms are years behind us—all this fuss about prom dresses may seem a little overblown.

But to youth in the front lines of their teen years, proms are significant rites of passage. They invest a young person with a sense of belonging, of being part of a community of peers.

Kenzie’s Closet was launched in 2006. Cincinnatian Brynne Coletti had a daughter in school at St. Ursula Academy in Walnut Hills. One night, she learned that one of her daughter’s classmates would have to miss the prom because her family couldn’t afford a dress.

It was a shock to her that a student at one of Cincinnati’s finest high schools would be in such financial straits. So Coletti called the school, made an anonymous donation to cover the cost of a dress and became determined to find a way to help other girls in similar situations.

Today, Kenzie’s Closet provides not just dresses, but also purses, wraps and costume jewelry for upwards of 600 girls a year, according to executive director Kathy Smith.

“We’re constantly gathering donations from people,” says Smith. “But just as important, we have developed a network of counselors, teachers and youth advocates who refer young women to us. They are our lifeline to reach the girls who need us.”

There are those who continue to pooh-pooh the importance of attending a prom. But Perkins thinks they are missing the point.

“You would be surprised how much difference this can make in a young woman’s life,” says Perkins. “I’m 53 and I still remember my prom. It’s more than a dance or having an opportunity to socialize. Prom is huge. For many students, it’s the biggest event of their year. It’s a chance to finally belong.”

To contact Kenzie’s Closet, visit kenziescloset.org or call 513-533-7766.