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Prom dress giveaway finds home in Carlton

For girls seeking the ultimate prom experience, finding and affording a dress can be a barrier to the big night.

For the past several years, a mother-daughter team has put dresses within reach. Amy and Ashleigh Arntson's nonprofit If the Dress Fits helps teens find affordable dresses by collecting dress donations from across the region.

After taking two years off during the pandemic, the team is back with a new concept this year. This year, dresses and fittings are taking place by appointment on weekends in a converted garage in Carlton instead of through one-time events.

The volume of dresses, because of continued donations and demand, has always been a struggle for the women. Now they are planning a permanent fitting spot in Carlton.

Ashleigh, 24, started the venture when she was in high school at Esko turned it into an official nonprofit in 2016.

Ashleigh said they found homes for more than 200 dresses in 2020, and the events took place in Barnum and as far away as Fargo, where she went to college.

"We've talked about this since the beginning," Ashleigh said of finding a home and having people come to them. "It's really a way to make it our own."

The Covid-19 pandemic, and the cancellation of many cherished high school events like prom, put If the Dress Fits on hiatus. "Funds were running out and we needed a new plan for dress storage," Amy said. Then Scott and Amy Arntson moved to Carlton from Duluth and an idea was sprung.

"We have had some extra outbuildings on our property and Scott came up with the idea to turn one of the extra garages into a dress garage," Amy said.

Scott painted the walls, epoxied the floor and built a dressing room.

"So instead of large-event giveaways, we are holding individual dress appointments," Amy said. The first appointments have been set for this weekend.

"He's been fantastic," Ashleigh said, laughing at her dad saying all he heard from the two was about making something like this happen and putting up with dresses taking over the family's basement. He was glad to help it become a reality, Ashleigh said.

A website went live in January and bookings poured in. "We already have students coming from St. Paul to International Falls with many schools in between," Amy said. "One advantage of having it on our own property and not having the dresses in storage is that we can accommodate a longer time frame to offer free dresses."

The pair admits this is a trial run. Those big giveaways drew many people because they were one-time events.

Dresses are either donated by teens in the area or from local shops and national vendors. Dress donations are accepted at Bella Rose Bridal in Duluth and Blue Arrow in Superior. Dresses need to be no more than four years old and clean.

Personalized prom dress appointments are available Saturdays and Sundays with some availability on Monday evenings. Each appointment is 45 minutes long and can be booked with up to three teens. There is a $10 fee per person to offset heating and electrical expenses. Appointments can be booked now and run now through mid-April.

There are more than 400 dresses available, many brand-new, and in sizes 0-24.

Visit http://www.ifthedressfits.org to learn more.

Ashleigh said she and her mom relish the opportunity to connect with the girls who need dresses. "We hear people's personal stories, their needs. It's what makes it all worth it."

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