When looking for something to wear to prom, many popular retailers, such as Macy’s, Nordstrom or Amazon, may come to mind. But for teens in Athens, there is another, more unique venue: the Athens-Clarke County Library.

In 2017, the Teen Services Department of the Athens-Clarke County Library began hosting its Bling Your Prom event. During Prom season, the library creates a pop-up boutique of old dresses, suits, jewelry and accessories donated by Athens residents and former students. Local teens preparing for dances can get free formal wear through the event. 

Elizabeth Hood, the teen service coordinator for the Athens Regional Library System, is proud that Bling Your Prom is returning for its fourth year after taking a brief pause during the pandemic.

 Why It’s Newsworthy: Bling Your Prom helps alleviate financial burden from low-income Athens families and the environmental risks associated with fast fashion and growing landfills. 

“Last year, 160 teens were able to come and take home a free prom outfit. And we’re hoping to meet those numbers again this year,” Hood said.

Hood feels Athens is unique for having such an opportunity to serve both the community and the environment.

Affordable Prom Memories 

For many teens, prom is a night to go all out; buying the perfect dress, shoes, jewelry, and accessories is very important. However, this can come at a steep price.  

Costs can be significantly hard on low-income Athenians as Athens-Clarke County faces a 26.6% poverty rate.

“The idea is really to alleviate that financial burden of prom from our teenagers and their families,” Hood said. “It can be such a large expense to tackle, sort of at the end of your high school career when you’re thinking about college and other big expenses.”

For teens in families facing financial difficulties, Bling Your Prom provides a way to still enjoy the excitement of finding and “shopping” for their dream outfits, according to Hood. 

“There’s a sort of a checkout process where you can come and get your stuff bagged up and put in a garment bag. And any jewelry is put in little bags so that it’s like a real shopping experience,” Hood said.

Athens residents and teens look through donated prom formal wear, shoes and accessories organized on clothing racks and tables to create a pop-up boutique atmosphere at the Athens-Clarke County Library on Feb. 25, 2023. (Photo/Malcolm Montgomery)

The event has provided many memories for both local teens and library staff alike. Hood remembers one particular experience when a girl found an elegant two-piece prom dress that was donated in 2022.

“One of the first girls who came in tried [the dress] on, and it fit her perfectly. She looked like a model; it was like this TV moment of finding the perfect dress,” Hood said.

North Oconee High School student Viveka Mehrotra was excited to learn about the event as she planned for her first prom this year. 

Mehrotra came to the 2023 Bling Your Prom with her mom to find a gown to go with her school’s Great Gatsby-themed dance.

“I think it’s just a great opportunity for people to be able to get stuff for their prom from everywhere around Athens,” Mehrotra said. “I think a lot of us have all this stuff that just sits in our cupboards and gathers dust, and it’s just a great way to give back.” 

Viveca Mehrotra looks for a simple, classy black dress for her Great Gatsby-themed prom at the Athens-Clarke County Library on Feb. 25, 2023. (Photo/Malcolm Montgomery)

Mehrotra left Bling Your Prom not only with a free gown but also with new memories.

“I’ve just loved seeing everybody’s smiles when they’re sitting in the changing room. and they find that dress,” Mehrotra said. “It’s a great thing to see, and I love being here with everybody.”

According to Hood, creating moments like these for high school students of all incomes is one major reason the Teens Service Department hopes to continue hosting the event in the future.    

“This is something that everyone wants our youth to have: a good, fun, and exciting prom,” Hood said. “And sometimes the stress of how much it costs can really put a damper on that great memory that they’re making.”

Serving the Environment

Bling Your Prom not only helps teens but also older Athenians and members of the community. 

The event receives old clothing donations from library patrons, local businesses, UGA students and people clearing out their closets, Hood said. 

For people in Athens, Bling Your Prom provides a new avenue to part with unneeded, lightly used clothing.

“A lot of times people will hear about it and be like, ‘Oh, I have these bridesmaids dresses that I’m never going to wear’ or ‘I have my old prom dress,’ and they bring it by,” Hood said.

This provides people with a far more sustainable method of disposing of clothing than the common practice of throwing away.

In 2018, the United States Environmental Protection Agency found that textiles made up 5.8% of total municipal solid waste (MSW), commonly known as garbage. Of the roughly 17 million tons of textile waste generated, roughly 76.2% came from clothing

These statistics grow more alarming as most of this generated waste ends up in landfills across the country, including here in Athens. According to the EPA, roughly 69.9% of the clothing waste generated in 2018 was sent to landfills.

Out of the 12,970,000 tons of clothing disposed of in the United States in 2018, roughly 9,070,000 tons (69.9%) ended up in landfills, despite there being other more sustainable options. This contributes to the issue of growing landfills nationwide, which are a source of greenhouse gas emissions. Data source: The United States Environmental Protection Agency. (Graphic/Malcolm Montgomery)

Suki Janssen, solid waste department director for Athens-Clarke County, has seen many misconceptions spread regarding landfills.

“Nothing breaks down on the landfill,” Janssen said. “Most landfills are like giant tombs; we go to great lengths to not allow decomposition to happen because decomposition causes landfill gases that we have to deal with, from methane, carbon dioxide, and other volatile organic compounds to leachate.” 

Though preservation measures aim to reduce the danger of greenhouse gases and runoff, Janssen states that landfills only exacerbate the problem.

“Basically, we’re just trying to extend the life of what’s in there. We’re passing the risk on to future generations, because, at some point, all landfills cause problems, or will cause problems,” Janssen said. 

Clothing Reuse in Athens

According to Janssen, about 300 tons of solid waste is sent to the Athens-Clarke County landfill daily. However, Janssen states that the Athens-Clarke County Landfill does not have to worry about textiles as much as other communities.  

“We don’t consider [textiles] a huge issue at the landfill,” Janssen said. “[Since] Athens has so many thrift stores, we don’t get as much as what people in other communities would.”

Janssen attributes this uniqueness to the poverty rate in Athens. 

“Because we have a real need in our area; a lot of impoverished folks. [It] leads to a lot of thrift stores, which means some of that material doesn’t make it too soon to our disposal areas.”

Though the Athens-Clarke County Solid Waste Department features programs for recycling, including the Center for Hard to Recycle Materials (CHaRM), Janssen urges residents to take advantage of local thrift stores and clothing reuse opportunities over recycling.

“We urge folks to always reuse before they recycle. I hope most of the material that’s usable goes into those reuse applications before it hits our department at the CHaRM or especially at the landfill,” Janssen said.

Clothing donated to the Athens-Clarke County Library for Bling Your Prom follows the reuse method Janssen recommends.

Old clothing that is donated to the library gets worn again by teens, and even some who come to receive clothes one year return the outfits the next to be worn again by a new generation, Hood said.

Bags of formal wear from last year’s Bling Your Prom contain men’s suits that will be offered to local teens again during the 2023 event. Keeping clothing safe in vacuum seal bags is another way the library works to ensure nothing goes to waste. (Photo/Malcolm Montgomery)

In previous years, even leftover clothing not taken by the end of the event found its way to other thrift stores or charities, according to Hood. 

“We don’t do a lot of throwing things away,” Hood said. “Even if [an outfit is] completely damaged, we will just disassemble it and use the materials for crafts.”

The end goal has always been that as little goes to waste as possible, Hood said.

“We found different homes for everything…. Everybody at the wrap-up had a load in the back of their car that they drove to a different place after we finished,” Hood said. “We make sure that nothing is going to waste whenever possible.”

Malcolm Montgomery is a fourth-year journalism student with a minor in theater.

 

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