Day of Giving Inspires Dress Drive for Local Girls

Often when we witness acts of kindness, we are spurred to act kindly ourselves. Giving begets giving. This is exactly what has happened in Highland Park. Four years ago, seventh grade English teacher Melissa Arof worked with several teachers and the Elm Place Middle School principal to create the town’s first Day of Giving.

The original idea was to collect canned food before the holidays and make it available on a weekend day at the school for families in need. That first year, 12 grateful families received assistance. The following year, Arof and the others began soliciting coats, hats, boots, other clothing, toys and books to give away alongside the food.

“The first item to go is always the toilet paper,” says Arof. “We’ve discovered that toilet paper can’t be bought with food stamps.”

Now, Elm Place students spend half a school day organizing the gym for the event. Parents help on the day of, while local businesses like Panera Bread and Once Upon a Bagel often donate breakfast to families from as far as Waukegan. Last year, 400 people attended the Day of Giving—many arriving via a free bus service provided by the North Shore School District.

Jill Rudman

All of this altruism inspired local parent Jill Rudman. When her then-14-year-old daughter, Tatum, came home after helping set up for the annual event, she lamented that some of the clothing seemed too used.

“We went back into our closets and gathered more current items to give,” says Rudman. “One was a dress my daughter had worn a couple of times.”

Later, a friend told Rudman that a little girl had run up to her on Christmas Eve wearing the dress and was so proud of it. “We thought, if one dress made this one little girl so happy, then let’s get 100,” she says.

She was clear with her friends when she asked for dresses from their daughter’s closets—she wanted near-perfect condition items of recent styles. Instead of her expected 100, she got 400 beautiful, like-new dresses donated in sizes ranging from youth size 6 to high school/adult sizes.

There were so many dresses that there wasn’t enough space at the school-wide Day of Giving for a full “boutique,” which was set up the following weekend complete with racks of dresses, mirrors and makeshift dressing rooms. Bags and tissue were donated to wrap the girls’ free finds.

Rudman was nervous that no one would show to try on the dresses she’d lovingly spot cleaned, steamed, organized and stored. She arrived at Elm Place at 6:15 a.m. to prepare for the 8 a.m. event opening to find a line already forming.

“Highland Park is really unique compared to other North Shore suburbs because about 20 percent of the students are eligible for reduced lunches,” Rudman says. “There are people living below the poverty line here. There’s clearly a need.”

When she saw the pre-opening line last year at the first event, Rudman stopped being nervous about attendance and instead worried about how a group this size would manage without clamoring over the dresses. Yet, she says, “Everyone was so gracious and polite and grateful.” Each family chose three to four dresses, and within 15 minutes, the racks were empty.

This year, Rudman hopes she’ll be able to reach even more girls with her dress boutique. She says that dresses are needed for holidays, graduation, prom and bar/bat mitzvah events, and she’s excited that event “will be able service hundreds of families, while raising awareness of diversity and charity in Highland Park and Highwood.”

The City of Highland Park recognized Jill Rudman with a 2015 Robert Barnard Character Counts Award. The awards are hosted each year by the City’s Human Relations Commission in collaboration with North Shore School District 112 and Highland Park High School.

The Dress Boutique will again open its doors this Dec. 12 at 7 a.m. at Elm Place Middle School, 2031 N. Sheridan Road, Highland Park.

A Call to Action—What YOU Can Do:

  • Individuals Can Donate Dresses: Contact Jill Rudman at [email protected] to arrange donation of excellent condition dresses and dressy skirts and tops and (new this year) new-like event purses.
  • Local Businesses Can Donate Accessories and Other Items: Contact Jill Rudman at [email protected] to arrange for donation of in-kind items designed to enhance the boutique experience, such as bags, accessories and beauty products.
  • Donate Items to Day of Giving: Contact Melissa Arof at [email protected] to arrange for donation of canned food items, great condition clothes including new grocery items coats, hats, and boots.

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