More than 4,000 prom dresses made their way from Northbrook to a disadvantaged area of Chicago Saturday morning -- the result of donations made by suburban students, businesses and civic organizations throughout the past year.
As it has since 1999, Zengeler Cleaners' Northbrook headquarters took responsibility for gathering, storing, repairing, cleaning and ultimately delivering the dresses to Price School on South Drexel in Chicago.
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Beginning Saturday and again on April 12 and 26, the Glass Slipper Project hosts a boutique at which girls from low-income families can pick out a free dress that fits their size and style.
Also making the trip this year were 100 pairs of dress shoes and 800 purses.
Tom Zengeler, owner of Zengeler Cleaners, said delivery day is always its own reward for a year's worth of work on the dresses.
"Many of these girls are in sweatpants and sweatshirts and have never even worn a dress," Zengeler said. "There's girls in tears. There's a lot of joy."
Though this is the 16th year he's been involved with the project, Zengeler has never sent so many dresses at once. Though planning to send three of his company's vans, including a double-sized one, he realized right at the end that an entire fourth one was necessary.
Zengeler, his 13-year-old daughter Lauren and about seven employees took more than an hour to move all the dresses from the store to the vans.
Zengeler said the project was first brought to his attention by a customer who worked at a radio station that was already involved. He saw his business as one that could help by cleaning and storing the dresses, as well as having outreach to collect them through its many customers and membership in the Green Oaks, Libertyville, Mundelein, Vernon Hills Chamber of Commerce.
"I got involved in this and saw it as a way for communities to help other communities in need," Zengeler said.
The dresses come from individuals at all times of year -- after homecoming in the fall, February turnabout dances and summer weddings. High schools that are especially involved include Stevenson, Deerfield, Libertyville, Lake Forest, Carmel and New Trier. Rotary and the Vernon Library in Vernon Hills are also strong contributors.
Carol Levin, public relations director of the GLMV Chamber of Commerce, said many members of her chamber recognize the importance of giving back and Zengeler is a great example for others just learning that.
"We see Tom as a role model for the other business owners who are just starting up," she said.
While some charitable programs took a hit during the recession, Zengeler said donations to the Glass Slipper Project never wavered. But though this year saw his greatest number of donations ever, there's another side to the story that's more unfortunate.
"The kids that are in need now are even more in need," Zengeler said.