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Rhona Sallay and Carol Atkins

Co-Founders, The Corsage Project, www.corsageproject.ca, Thornhill and Toronto

Every April, for one day only, Rhona Sallay and Carol Atkins host the Boutique Ball and what emerges when the clock strikes six are hundreds of girls whose prom woes have been replaced with excitement about the last rite of passage in high school … the formal.

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Since 1999, Ms. Sallay and Ms. Atkins have built a network of 30 schools, dozens of retail partners, guidance counsellors and 200 volunteer personal shoppers. The network comes together so that young women, who juggle classes, homework, extracurricular activities and part-time jobs – yet cannot afford to attend their proms – get to go the ball, and in a new dress with a stylish handbag, shoes and accessories.

First step

"In 1999, Carol's daughter, Jodi Atkins, was living in British Columbia and came home in October for a visit and told us about the Cinderella Project[a B.C.-based program that provides low-income students with formal attire so they can attend their proms] We decided to start our own program. I called Sheilagh Johnson, the then-executive director at the Children's Aid Foundation, about creating a partnership. CAF became our charitable sponsor."

Donations

"We have also had people donate dresses, shoes and accessories – as long as they are current and in great condition we are happy to accept them. Cash is helpful so if a shopper cannot find something we can provide her with a gift receipt."





Aha! moment

"In 2001, when we were sorting through gently used dresses that were not at all suitable, we made the decision that retailers also had a social responsibility to help these young women. Laura Canada came onboard as one of our first sponsors. Most of the dresses we now offer our Corsage girls are brand new. Many of the girls expect the dresses to be used and outdated, so when they see what we have to offer they are surprised and excited."

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Setbacks

"In a city like Toronto, it was – and remains – difficult to find a venue that you can make over in less than 24 hours. We want these young women to get the full shopping experience with proper drapery, dressing rooms, displays, etc., and the venue has to be accessible by public transportation and affordable. Not always an easy task in Toronto and in the spring."

What discourages you?

"It is discouraging to know that so many young people are struggling with financial pressure so early on, and that events such as prom – that can cost upward of $500 – have become a cause of stress, not celebration."





Next steps?

"Eleven years ago, we had 50 Corsage girls; last year we had 250. Over the years we have assisted more than 2,000 young women. We are now exploring ways to help young men. Last year, Le Château opened their doors to outfit six young men and we hope to grow this part of the organization."

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Dream celebrity sponsor?

"Michaëlle Jean. She shows us that you can achieve anything if you put your mind to it."

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Farah Mohamed is the President & CEO of the G(irls)20 Summit. Send suggestions for the Action Figure to Livebetter@globeandmail.com.

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