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Once upon a prom

Pictured are (from left) Jackie DiMezzo, Haley McCaffery, Taylor Keane, Deneen McCaffery and Barb Consalvo. BILL ACHUFF / FOR THE TIMES

There are lots of places to buy prom dresses in Northeast Philly, but few if any can compare to Helping Hands.

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Elegance permeates the pop-up boutique, ranging from the ornate light fixtures overhead to the plush furniture and wall-to-wall carpeting, as well as the warming fireplace on the back wall. Contemporary music plays in the background. Refreshments are served at the front desk. Young ladies could spend countless hours sifting through racks upon racks of colorful, sparkling dresses — an eclectic selection sure to satisfy any style sensibility.

Perhaps best of all for the lucky shoppers, each and every garment sells for just 20 bucks.

That’s because Helping Hands is not a for-profit company. Rather, it’s a community service project founded eight years ago by Deneen McCaffery, whose husband Frank practices chiropractic at Academy Injury and Health Center, 2808 Southampton Road. And the boutique, it’s actually the well-appointed lobby of the Sprinkler Fitters Local 692 catering hall on nearby McNulty Road.

On two Saturdays and a Sunday last month, Helping Hands distributed dozens of donated gowns to appreciative teens and their parents, who were really happy they wouldn’t have to spend hundreds of dollars for an article of clothing that they might never wear after prom night.

“I’ve found that girls generally want to keep their dresses for a year or two, but then they hear about us and want to donate. The reality is, they will only wear the dress once,” Deneen McCaffery said.

Although the prom gown program is just three years old, Helping Hands has been doing community outreach for much longer. Eight years ago, McCaffery, her family and friends started collecting and redistributing Thanksgiving meals to the needy. This year, they dished out 500 meals. Meanwhile, their Christmas toy drive helped out another 84 families in need.

According to the founder, the prom gown program — known as “Once Upon a Prom” - — all began with a family friend who has become like a daughter to the McCafferys.

“She could not afford to go to her prom when she was in high school,” Deneen McCaffery said. “So she wanted to start a prom dress drive because she didn’t want anyone to have the same feeling that she had sitting at home crying on prom night.”

The spirit of giving has enabled Helping Hands to grow its inventory to more than 300 dresses essentially through word-of-mouth and social media. Volunteers visit high schools throughout the year to spread the word.

“We hustle. We’re non-stop all year,” McCaffery said. “It’s not easy to organize, not easy to get donations. But it’s such a mission of ours, we’re determined.”

Donations have come in from across the nation, each with their own unique backstories. McCaffery’s friend Barbara Consalvo posed with a fluffy pink, beaded gown known as the “princess dress.” It has special significance to her family.

“It’s very special,” Consalvo explained. “A friend of my daughter had lost her mother, so my husband and I went out and bought this dress for her.”

That was in 2012. Earlier this year, Consalvo happened to meet another young woman on a train. She was carrying the same dress. The young woman said that she had been given the dress by the original owner. But she had no need for it anymore, so she donated it to Helping Hands.

“It came back to us in 2016,” Consalvo said.

The service project also relies on local businesses and organizations. The Sprinkler Fitters donated use of their hall. The Operating Engineers Local 542, Wade Insurance and Auto Tags, Katie O’Donnell’s pub and Ancient Order of Hibernians Division 25 also help out.

Prom-goers from throughout the city were the beneficiaries. Bianca O’Hara and Amia Rivers of Mastery Charter Thomas Campus in South Philly made the drive to the Northeast and it paid off.

“They were really pretty. We got the same dress in different colors,” O’Hara said.

“I loved the sparkles and I loved the ruffles,” Rivers said. “I tried on about six dresses.”

Fox Chase resident Theresa Harter, who attends W.B. Saul High School in Roxborough, heard about Once Upon a Prom when someone showed her a promotional flyer. She had some doubts that she’d find anything she’d like, but she gave it a try anyway.

“I tried to keep an open mind about it,” Harter said, “because I’m picky about what I like. When I came, I liked the different styles that I saw.”

She also likes the idea of reusing beautiful dresses. It’s like they have lives of their own.

“I tried on the pink one. It had a really cool story behind it,” she said. “I like that someone would donate a dress costing hundreds of dollars so someone else could wear it for free.”

Kirsten Dunn, a Benjamin Rush Arts Academy student who’s headed to the Philadelphia Academy Charter School prom, agreed.

“Knowing that someone wore a dress that you also like, that you have the same taste, I think that’s cool,” Dunn said.

Dunn’s friend, Sierra Lewis from PACS, likes that she was able to save her money for other important prom costs.

“For hair and makeup and stuff like that,” Lewis said.

Even though prom shopping season is over for Helping Hands, the dress collection season is still in full effect. The organization seeks new or gently used gowns in all sizes. Donations can be made at Academy Injury and Health, 2808 Southampton Road, or by calling 215–637–1212. ••

St. Hubert senior Nicole Faraldo admires a dress with her mom, Sharon. BILL ACHUFF / FOR THE TIMES

Dress to impress: Above, Maria Suarez-Moya (left) and Janet Rivera look through a selection of prom dresses. BILL ACHUFF / FOR THE TIMES

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