The two piece prom dresses 2015 are lined up neatly in a storage facility in Northbrook, awaiting new homes. Floor length red satin. Strapless with a canary yellow chiffon skirt. Hot pink tea length. Spaghetti ties in blue. What started 12 years ago as a small project is now a year-long effort for Northbrook-based Zengeler Cleaners.
The business collects, clears, presses and mends thousands of donated robes a year for the Glass Slipper Project, a nonprofit that gives away free prom dresses to juniors and seniors in the Chicago area who find it difficult to purchase their own.
Over three weekends in April, about 1, 400 girls will gather at Price School, 4351 S. Drexel in Chicago, to choose from dresses, shoes, purses and make-up for prom. Set up like a shopping boutique with volunteers who serve as personal customers, the girls will have some that is likely larger than any department store, said Amy Ross, a board member with the project.
Although the dresses are collected by multiple sources, many of them come from Zengeler's locations, she said.
Tom Zengeler, chief executive of Zengeler Cleaners, said it started when a customer at the Deerfield store called to say that the Glass Slipper Project needed a source to collect dresses. Zengeler said he realized using his stores as drop-off locations could be a good fit.
That first year, in 2003, the cleaners collected more than 300 dresses, he said. Last year, Zengeler's eight locations – Deerfield, Hubbard Woods, Northfield, Winnetka, two Libertyville stores, Long Grove and the headquarters in Northbrook – collected more than 3, 500 dresses, hundreds of shoes and other accessories, valued at more than $2 million, according to the company.
This year, the store's planners are hoping to collect more than 4, 000 dresses.
"It takes a lot of time, " said Tom Zengeler. "It's a year-long process. We used to just collect the dresses from now before the end of Drive. It has become such a big program that we collect the dresses year round and store them in our facility until we make two deliveries. "
Ross said the all-volunteer organization is relieved to Zengeler for helping orchestrate the collection process.
"When [dresses] come in and are set to go, it makes our lives so much easier, " Ross said. "You any longer ! worry about stains or tears. They just come in prepped and good to go. Some of the donations don't. "
On a recent day, Lupe Martinez, who has worked at Zengeler Cleaners for 10 years, steamed a long, black gown with a white sash in the fluff of the Northbrook facility. Many of the dresses need cleaning or mending, but some are not even worn.
"This one still has the price tag on it, " said Oscar Gonzalez, store manager, pointing to a red, asymmetrical dress with rhinestone beading.
Because his stores are in affluent areas, Zengeler said using his locations as drop-off points allows suburban communities to help inner-city communities.
"What I like is that so many people get involved with it, " he said. "They get involved in it for helping people in other communities, not necessarily in our own community. ".