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Students from Willenberg Career and Transition Center wait to choose their prom dress from Maria’s Closet. (photo: Summer Kulusich)

On a recent school day, Willenberg Career and Transition Center in San Pedro was preparing for its first-ever prom. Maria’s Closet, a nonprofit agency, had transformed the gym into a beautiful space to provide young women with new dresses for free. Music played as girls excitedly shopped and tried on dresses, each with their own personal stylist. Every detail was perfectly orchestrated, including professional photos of the girls, makeup artists, free accessories, swag bags, and prom dress-shaped cookies. Maria’s Closet wants every girl to experience the prom with confidence and not be excluded because of financial barriers.

Many of the students at Willenberg, who are 18-22 years old with disabilities, had never been to a prom and likely could not afford a fancy new dress. These students often came from high schools that placed them in back bungalows with the other special education students. Willenberg creates an environment where students are superstars and uplifted. The day Maria’s Closet partnered with the school, the atmosphere was so inspiring that both staff and volunteers were brought to tears seeing the smiles on the faces of the girls. 

A student models a prom dress from Maria’s Closet. (photo: Summer Kulusich)

“For some of the girls, this is a time where they can feel like everybody else for a night and leave their hardships behind,” states Ronna Luna, founder of Maria’s Closet.

Maria’s Closet is a volunteer-run charity in San Pedro that has provided free prom dresses to young women with financial challenges since 2016. Their biggest event is a yearly dress giveaway held at the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Los Angeles Harbor. Last month, they served 178 girls from the local community and surrounding areas, some coming as far as Riverside. The girls fill out an application which serves as a tool to get to know the girls and their needs before the event. All applicants are accepted. The majority of the girls would not go to the prom if it weren’t for Maria’s Closet due to the many costs associated with the dance or other obstacles, like living in foster care or at a shelter. 

Maria’s Closet dress distributions are enthusiastic pre-prom events with lots of smiles and positive feedback. Each girl from sizes 0-32 is offered approximately eight dress selections with their stylist. It takes a village to make it all happen. Luna’s husband built dressing rooms in their backyard. A crew of volunteers load and unload the donated dresses, clothing racks, accessories, dressing rooms, and other equipment on and off trucks and into storage units. Maria’s Closet’s goal is to have a storefront one day where they can store the items and hold events on-site, including pop-ups. Maria’s Closet has also provided college scholarships to the girls they serve.

“I named Maria’s Closet after my kind mother-in-law Maria,” states Luna. “Years ago, a friend at San Pedro High School asked me to assist a girl named Gillian who could not afford a prom dress. I took her shopping to find the perfect dress and got to know her and the challenges she faced. I knew there must be so many other Gillians like her in need. That is how the agency began.”

Schools often hold events like proms and do not consider that the ticket price and everything needed to attend, like dresses and transportation, are often too expensive for many students. With much-appreciated support from the community, Maria’s Closet is working towards changing that, one dress and girl at a time. spt

For more information, to volunteer, or to make a financial donation, visit mariasclosets.org.


photo of san pedro today author Jennifer Marquez

Jennifer Marquez

Jennifer Marquez can be reached at  jennifertmarquez@yahoo.com  and @jenntmqz on Twitter and Instagram.