Article and Photos by Michael J. Billoni
Senior Contributing Writer
Jill O’Malley, a Town of Tonawanda Board member, and founder of the Ken-Ton Closet, which provides free clothing to families in need, recalls the wonderful memories of her high school prom. Years ago, when she heard about students at Kenmore West and East high schools who were not attending their prom because they could not afford a dress, she knew she had to do something about it.
She knew Paul and Cyndee Billoni (full disclosure: They are my brother and sister-in-law) from Colvin Cleaners, because they donate clean, winter coats from their “Coats 4 Kids” program to her Ken-Ton Closet – and she knew they also gave away free prom gowns in the spring. After learning about that program, O’Malley arranged to transport students from the Ken-Ton high schools to the stage of Shea’s Performing Arts Center in Buffalo’s Theatre District, where they found the perfect gown, along with shoes and jewelry.
“To hear these students gush about that experience on the ride home was priceless,” said O’Malley, who will transport students again next week. The 15th annual “Gowns for Prom” returns to Western New York four years after the global coronavirus pandemic interrupted the program.
Colvin Cleaners, The Allstate Foundation and Reeds Jenss have partnered to present the 2023 “Gowns for Prom” onstage at Shea’s from 3-7 p.m. April 11-13. In order to obtain a donated gown, WNY high school students must register online at www.gownsforprom.com.
From left, Christopher Billoni, Jill O’Malley, Cyndee Billoni and Dinorah E. Santos amidst many of the gowns that will be on stage at Shea’s next week as part of the returning “Gowns for Prom.”
“We’re so excited to be back in person and help every student have the prom of their dreams,” said Chris Billoni, vice president of Colvin Cleaners. “We’ve seen the WNY community come together in previous years, and this year is no different. People have been donating used gowns, purses and shoes, all of which will be distributed during our ‘Gowns for Prom’ event at Shea’s. More than anything, the Colvin Cleaners mission has always been based on helping our community through programs like this.”
“We’re excited to offer sign up slots online for students to select the time that works best for them, their school, and their parents or guardians,” said Paul Billoni, owner and president of Colvin Cleaners. “We’re being cognizant of spacing and capacity on the Shea’s stage in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. So, we encourage every student to go online, sign up for a slot, and then come on down and select the gown of your dreams at no cost. This way, every student can attend their prom, looking and feeling their best.”
What to Expect
“Gowns for Prom” is a nonprofit program that relies on donations and volunteers from throughout WNY. The Allstate Foundation provides donation spaces at various locations throughout the year, and Colvin Cleaners cleans, sorts and distributes gowns at no cost. This year, Reed Jenss owner and President Jeffrey Zimmer, a long-time partner, is donating a pair of earrings or a bracelet to every student who selects a gown onstage at Shea’s.
A team of volunteers greets the students on the stage and takes them to the racks of gowns, arranged by size. The youth select a number of them to try on, and then go upstairs to the dressing room of the stars who have performed at Shea’s. There, they find the gown of their dreams.
Back on the stage, they can select through shoes before stopping at Marlena Gagner’s jewelry table, where she and associates will help the student find the perfect accessory for free.
“I could not afford a dress for my prom, so my mom went to the thrift store and found draperies and made my dress from that,” Gagner recalls. “When I began my jewelry business, I heard about ‘Gowns for Prom.’ And when I saw it first-hand years ago, I asked Cyndee if I could come and donate jewelry to the students. I spend all years making the items I give away to them, because it makes me feel so good.”
“The ‘Gowns for Prom’ program is entirely volunteer run,” said Amanda Meggesto, relations manager at Colvin Cleaners. “We have about 60 slots each day for volunteers. If you have the time, and you would like to make a difference in the lives of WNY high school students, sign up to volunteer at www.gownsforprom.com.”
Colvin Cleaners is still seeking donations of gowns, purses and shoes. Additionally, it remains in need of volunteers. For a list of donation locations and how to volunteer, visit www.gownsforprom.com.
Colvin Cleaners is a 92-years-young company founded by Phil Billoni. His brothers, Tony and Santo, worked in the business for over 50 years. Tony’s son, Paul, current president and CEO, has worked there for 45 years. His son, Christopher, is vice president. Christopher and Paul’s daughter, Erica, are the third-generation members of the family business. For more information, visit www.colvincleaners.com.
Marlena Gagner shows off some of her handmade jewelry.