Jeri Kuecks never forgot being unable to afford to attend her high school prom. Decades have passed. But you don't forget something like that.
Yet neither do you anticipate a solution taking over your life for weeks at a time.
"But the need is immense," said Kuecks, a dynamo who pretty much shuts down her Waconia tailoring shop, Vista Images, each prom season to revamp, restyle and refurbish used bridesmaid dresses -- yup, even the hideous ones -- and give them new life at high school proms from Chaska to Brainerd. For most of March and April she's devoted to ripping seams, crafting fabric flowers, raising necklines and gathering tulle as high school girls come to her home for fittings as late as 10 p.m. It's all done for free.
"The girls go out there and they're like, 'I don't like this ribbon,' and she's, whoop! off with that and sewing on a new one," said Dorothy Clark-Miles, a counselor for the Chaska and Chanhassen high schools who works with Kuecks. "Then she throws all these purses at their feet, and jewelry. It's like her purpose in life. She's bound and determined to make their prom great."
Several other projects in the Twin Cities provide girls with prom dresses for free, or at deeply discounted prices. But the dresses are as-is, and alterations can be pricey, especially on gowns with beads, brocades, bustiers or other embellishments. It's enough to make Kuecks a little crazy.
"There are outrageous prices for dresses these days, but also for alterations at some places," she said. "Why are we ripping off young people? They're our future. I don't believe I'm leaving a lot of money on the table -- I'm a businesswoman and I need to survive -- but I just don't do that."
It started with one girl
Kuecks, 54, didn't imagine this becoming an annual event. Seven years ago, when her son was a junior at Chaska High School, she told him he was going to prom "and that I would pay for it. He just had to find the girl," Kuecks said. "He told me that wouldn't be a problem, but then she couldn't afford a dress and could I help her out?"
Kuecks did, by altering an old bridesmaid's dress -- then helped out eight of the girl's friends, as well. Struck by the need, she decided to offer some free dresses the next year. Today, she works only with girls recommended by school counselors. They're eligible if they qualify for a free prom ticket, are handicapped physically or mentally, have parents serving in the military or are foreign exchange students.
"I don't want girls who don't really need this and would take advantage of me, because they're really taking advantage of girls who do need a dress."
She tries to work with no more than 200 dresses during prom season, which means keeping a huge inventory stored in stacks of plastic tubs in her basement. There are dresses with sequins and beading, with flounces and ruffles, with boned bodices and plunging necklines. The gowns come in every color of the crayon box, hence the pegboard wall studded with spools of thread arranged in deepening hues.
She'd hoped that a story in a local magazine would prompt more people to donate their used dresses, but all it did was spur requests from teens in need. She haunts garage sales and takes old samples from bridal shops to restyle and donate. She's in dire need of dresses in larger sizes.
The need isn't obvious
Kuecks comes by her skills naturally, although she burnished them with professional training. Her grandmother was a tailor, "and she always said it was a skill that no one can take from you." Less warmly recalled is the memory of the years her mother worked in a sweatshop. "But my parents were very loving, giving people," she said. "If someone needed help, they were there, and I hope I can be there for people."
Sometimes that's more difficult than you'd think. She rolls her eyes at schools that have turned aside her offer of dresses, saying that no students in their district need such charity. "My concern is they're not paying attention if they think no one needs this service," she said.
Kuecks knows that the need may not always be visible. Her husband was laid off four years ago from his job as a computer systems architect and, at age 62, his situation isn't likely to change. Still, Kuecks said, she gives 50 percent of her business from her tailoring shop back to the community each year, whether in prom dresses or the costumes she makes gratis for Waconia's 44-member show choir.
She's fine with taking credit for sewing breakaway silver shifts over hot-pink minidresses. But Kuecks is the soul of discretion when it comes to who leaves the house with a new prom dress. "I believe in total anonymity," she said. "And I tell the girls who have been down here and seen all the dresses, don't be going to the dance and saying, 'Oh! I know where you got that dress!'"
Clark-Miles, the drug and alcohol counselor for the Chaska and Chanhassen high schools, appreciates such sensitivity. Girls come into her office a little shy, a little embarrassed, "but I tell them, omigod, Jeri is so happy that you can come out to her house," she said. For her part, Clark-Miles said the program has helped her build some relationships with students that she might not have had. "It's given me another avenue for getting to know kids."
(There's also some help for teenage boys; a Chaska mom, Debbie Travis, donated four gift cards from the Men's Wearhouse to cover the cost of tuxes with all the fixings.)
Prom season has about another two weeks of life, and Kuecks expects to be working up until midnight before the last dance. Then, just as in the fairy tale, the magic can stop. Until next year.
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185