What started out as an idea to recycle formal dresses has morphed into a popular self-empowerment organization for girls at Cross Keys High School in Brookhaven.
Bee Nguyen founded Athena’s Warehouse in 2009, when she realized the bridesmaids dresses building up in her closet could find new life as prom dresses for girls who may not be able to afford them.
“I was at the age that I had bridesmaids dresses I was never going to wear again,” said Nguyen, who is now 31.
Looking for high schools to get involved with, Athena’s Warehouse started its Prom Project at Cross Keys High School. But after getting to know some of the students at Cross Keys, Nguyen wanted to do more.
Nguyen said she feels a connection to the girls at the school. Many come from immigrant families like her own. Cross Keys is the most culturally diverse high school in the state, with students from 65 different countries, according to the school’s website.
“My parents were refugees and came over in 1979 after leaving Vietnam,” Nguyen said. “I understand very well the immigrant struggle, and that makes a lot of the girls very relatable.”
Nguyen wanted to expose the girls to positive female role models and started a series of after-school workshops and events called “Be Awesome, Be Aware.” The workshops focus on issues for young women, like body image, pregnancy prevention, healthy eating and domestic violence.
“I believe a person can change the path and direction of a young person if you come into their life at the right time,” Nguyen said.
For the Prom Project, Athena’s Warehouse collects lightly-used, current formal dresses. Girls earn their prom dresses by signing up to volunteer for a community service project.
This year, Nguyen said Athena’s Warehouse went to East Point Elementary School to help tutor students.
“We want to really teach them they can earn something for themselves and have an experience that’s fun for them and connect the two things together,” Nguyen said.
Diane Gluck, faculty liason for Athena’s Warehouse at Cross Keys, said the community service day is so popular, even some guys wanted to participate this year. “I have girls who don’t need a prom dress but asked if they could just participate in community service,” she said.
Gluck said the students at Cross Keys are very enthusiastic and giving.
“They don’t understand that they are the recipients, often, of community service. They want to be the givers. That’s how cool our students are,” Gluck said.
After the community service, the shopping begins. Gluck said it’s fun to watch the girls light up when they find a dress they like. “It’s like magic when they find the perfect dress,” Gluck said.
This year, about 30 girls will be attending Cross Keys’ April 27 prom in dresses they earned from Athena’s Warehouse, Nguyen said.
Gluck said she thinks the Prom Project also teaches girls to budget. “For a lot of our girls, it’s not that they can’t afford [a dress], they know this is a smart place to save money, and they’re very practical,” Gluck said. “They can spend money on their college applications or other areas.”
Gluck said the Athena’s Warehouse seminars have also been beneficial for the senior girls who participate.
“It really allows students to have another connection to an adult to ask questions and have some guidance,” Gluck said. “It’s so beneficial for girls to see young, professional and dynamic women.”
Nguyen said each year the program has grown and students are excited about participating.
“They come in and they’re excited and they’re open-minded,” Nguyen said. “We tend to get a core group of girls who show up for everything and they love it.”