Lawyer works toward ‘breaking the cycle of poverty’

Providing prom or graduation attire to financially strapped teenagers is more than just a bid to ensure they are able to attend grad celebrations, says The Cinderella Project Society co-founder and lawyer Heather MacKenzie.

It’s a move towards what she calls “breaking the cycle of poverty.”

Today, there are teens sleeping in cars, “couch-surfing,” working to survive, and even holding together parentless families while still trying to finish high school, she tells Law Times. The latest statistics confirm that 20 per cent of Canadian children live below the poverty line. 

“These are children born into circumstances beyond their control,” says MacKenzie, as parents may be substance abusers, prostitutes, deceased, bankrupted, or, simply have abandoned their children. Or, they may be immigrates who have suffered great hardship in war-torn countries with parents struggling to adapt.

The children are often the victims of abuse, violence, or neglect, which is compounded by bullying or being ostracized at school. “They are often flying under the radar,” she says, as they fabricate cover stories for other students, friends, or friends’ parents.

Some also suffer physical/emotional disabilities and language differences. But, eventually, school officials, counsellors, or teachers find out about their circumstances and The Cinderella Project is one organization that attempts to help. 

The Cinderella Project outfits Cinderellas and Cinderfellas for graduation providing everything free from undergarments to tuxedos and ball gowns.

“We take over the three ballrooms in the Renaissance Vancouver Harbourside Hotel (which donates the space),” says MacKenzie. Some 400 volunteers bring 2,000 ball gowns plus suits and tuxes plus accessories to the hotel for Boutique Day.

Hair stylists, seamstresses, photographers, makeup artists are also on hand to transform the individual into what she or he would look like prom night.

“We do this in the spring,” says MacKenzie, as most students drop out at this time. The reason is not always obvious. “School is a safe place for many of these children,” she says, plus there’s a place to shower and get food.

If students leave before graduation and are unable to succeed in finding work, there is always the opportunity to return. Intervening and providing support at this stage provides an incentive to stay and again it improves their chances of finding work or going to post secondary institutions.

MacKenzie says the program has been criticized for believing a ball gown can change the lives of these young people. But, she believes it can.

She recounts the story of a young woman who arrived at the hotel for Boutique Day in tears, telling how her father was too ill that morning from “getting high” the night before to accompany her despite being aware that this was a special event for her. “What does it matter,” the father told her. “You won’t amount to anything - just like your mother.”

At the end of the day, the teenager was coiffed and dressed for the prom and a new vision appeared. She had picked out a dress, a hairstyle plus accessories, and created a new image of herself. And, she is typical of the transformation that happens, points out MacKenzie.

“Many of them can’t take their eyes off the mirror,” she says. That’s the essence of the project - letting the teenagers see whom they can be in life and not as others define them.  

The clothing comes from donations ranging from private to some stores, which offer or pledge a number of items each year. Movie sets also offer up clothing, with one special tux coming from a Charlie Sheen movie shot in Vancouver.

“Imagine going to your graduation in something Charlie Sheen wore in a movie,” says MacKenzie.
This year the project was also able to give year-old laptops to students as a computer company gave its executives new computers.

Goodie bags are also given to each student with personal hygiene products and gifts. The event is not billed as charity, but as a reward for individuals who have overcome tremendous odds to remain in school, says MacKenzie.  

The Cinderella Project also gives out some bursary funds. “These are not grade based,” says MacKenzie, as it becomes impossible for students holding down jobs, or who are homeless or caring for parents or siblings to often obtain the highest exam scores. 

This bursary and financial support is a program aspect that MacKenzie wants to take further. She would also like to see law firms or their clients sponsor these students, either by paying post-secondary tuition, book costs, or living expenses.

Or, even offer summer jobs. There are approximately half a dozen similar programs throughout B.C. and MacKenzie’s group circulates extra clothing to other groups as needed.

Any lawyer who wants to start a group is also welcome to contact The Cinderella Project. “We have starter kits,” says MacKenzie, which includes information on how-to as well as packages of clothing. There are approximately 80 such groups in North America with the Vancouver project one of the first to form.

Last year, The Cinderella Project received the YMCA’s prestigious Power of Peace, Local Peacemaker Award. In 2005, the project won the Lower Mainland Good Neighbor Award sponsored by Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP.

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