Pam Philipp is a fairy godmother to 13,000 Minnesota teens. But even fairy tales come to an end.
For more than a decade, the jovial woman, now 68, has been the “head fairy,” collecting donated prom dresses, washing hundreds of gowns and waking up at 3 a.m. to replace beads on sparkling bodices to grant teens in need their wish to attend the big high school dance.
“People just don’t realize it’s year-round,” Philipp said of the work. “They think it just appears.”
There’s no magic behind Operation Glass Slipper, the all-volunteer nonprofit Philipp launched 13 years ago, but there are nine other volunteers who help, many of whom are entering their 70s. That’s why they’re stepping down this year and, unless another fairy godmother appears, the Twin Cities nonprofit will vanish this spring after a final “last dance” March 16 and 17..
“It’s a good cause, but we can only do it for so long,” said her husband, Mike Philipp, the nonprofit’s “sherpa,” as he hauled racks of colorful dresses into two semitrailer trucks to take to the prom dress giveaway.
Wearing silver earrings shaped as high heels and vibrant purple glasses, Pam Philipp dashed around the West St. Paul warehouse where she stashes 3,000 dresses for free. She got the idea for the nonprofit in 2007 after reading an article about a Chicago teen collecting prom dresses to ship to girls in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina.
“I think there’s a need locally,” Philipp said, adding she was excited for the role: “I was always the mom who planned the parties at school.”
The two-day “Princess Event” is one big party, outfitting teens in difficult financial or family circumstances with a free prom dress, shoes, purse and jewelry. The first year, 500 girls showed up, then 750 teens the next year. Since then, the “fairy godmothers” have made prom a reality for 1,000 teens each year.
Last year, Tamara, a Twin Cities single mother of two daughters with special needs, watched as one daughter picked out a blue, sparkly ballgown. With the family relying on food shelves and shopping at thrift stores, she said she knew prom wouldn’t be an option for her daughter without the program.
“It gives them the opportunity to be like everyone else and be special for one day,” said Tamara, who declined to use her last name for privacy reasons and choked up talking about the nonprofit. “We don’t always get those opportunities. It made such a difference for my daughter. They have huge hearts and I so hope someone will pick this up.”
This year, she and her 17-year-old daughter are volunteering their time, helping unload dresses and outfit other girls. That’s why, as Philipp flips through the racks of dresses in every color, shape and size, she sees more than just a dress. She has watched gowns transform thousands of teens who enter the changing rooms cautious, insecure or defensive, and emerge wearing their first fancy dress or high heels with a confident smile or joyful tears.
She and her more than 600 volunteers who help with the spring event have dressed teens from Cass Lake to Chaska and from size 0 to 30. From helping find and alter a dress to be more modest for a Muslim teen or fit for a teen in a wheelchair, no one goes away without the dress of their dreams.
“That’s why we’re doing it all,” Philipp said. “It just means a lot to them; as a high schooler, it’s just a major rite-of-passage. If you’re a girl who can’t afford it, you’re just outside looking in.”
Over the years, Operation Glass Slipper has garnered national attention and local awards. This year’s final “Princess Event” at the Southdale Center in Edina will, for the first time, expand to include ninth- and 10th-grade girls, likely boosting the number of teens they dress to a record 1,500 students. Dresses that aren’t given away for free will go to two sales afterward.
Other gowns like cocktail and pageant dresses are sold for anywhere from $2.50 to $250 at four sales throughout the year. The money raised offsets costs for the prom dress giveaway, such as buying shoes, purses or hard-to-find small or large dress sizes and renting two semitrailer trucks to haul boxes and racks of dresses to Southdale.
Philipp, who majored in fashion design in college and is a self-described “bling babe,” worked in sales before staying at home to raise the couple’s daughter. Now, she’s become the prom dress pro.
And now, she’s the one with a wish: hoping someone else will start a new chapter for a program that’s created a special day for thousands of teens.
“You can donate to charities, but when you’re there and can see … the joy you feel on these girls’ faces,” she said, “it’s so exciting.”