Cinderella Project gives teens a chance to be stars

Cinderella Project lets students feel like a celebrity — and that there is hope.

Cinderella Project lets students feel like a celebrity — and that there is hope.

Photograph by: Handout, Dale Ziegler Photography

VANCOUVER - Chelsea, a Grade 12 student in Surrey, says she has never ever felt like a movie star, but on Sunday she will be treated like one, getting primped and fussed over just like the Oscar nominees.

Chelsea, who asked to keep her family name private, now lives on her own after having been in foster care. She is one of 150 disadvantaged students in the Lower Mainland who, with the help of the Cinderella Project, will live a Hollywood moment getting dolled up in donated gowns and tuxedos so they can attend their own graduations.

"There are so many things I want to say and so many people I want to thank," she says, sounding like a starlet. "I am so excited."

As Oscar day dawns, these students - some of whom have parents who prostitute themselves, who take drugs, who have a mental illness or have abandoned their kids or harmed them - will be paired with a fairy godmother or father who will take them out of their daily existence and shower them with attention.

"It's not just the outfit," says Heather MacKenzie, founder and executive director of the Cinderella Project. "It's the energy, the buzz, all the attention they get."

Paige Pogue caught that energy last year.

"I didn't really think there was much in life for me," says Pogue, whose troubled life includes an overdose on pills at age 15. Even though she was on the student council and the honour roll, Pogue didn't think she could face her graduation ceremony. She didn't have a dress and her friends all had four, one for each party.

Then her school counsellor referred her to the Cinderella Project.

"I went in thinking, I am just going to get a dress and it's not going to be very fun. But there were three ballrooms full of dresses and shoes and purses and anything you could imagine. They had servers going around with water and snacks. You had your own fairy godmother who would carry your things for you and go get you things. It was really neat."

She tried on many dresses, but saved the one she saw first for last. It was a gorgeous ivory silk off-the-shoulder number that fit her perfectly. She felt like Marilyn Monroe. People said she looked like her too.

"As soon as the Cinderella Project came along, I felt like there was a bit more hope for me," Pogue says, "that I could actually not be a loser."

This year is the 10th anniversary of the project. When the Renaissance Hotel, which donates the space, offered MacKenzie Oscar night for her event, MacKenzie saw an opportunity to pick up on that theme.

"Because each one of these kids is a star," she says.

This year, after the grads have found their dress or tux, after they have had their hair and makeup done by professionals, after they have selected shoes, clutches and jewelry that they can keep, the grads will walk the red carpet, they will pose for the paparazzi, and they will pick up swag from the swag tent, just like the nominees.

Chelsea, who loves the Oscars, hopes to find a dress like the strapless, corset-backed gown Brittany Snow wore in the movie Prom Night. Only Chelsea hopes to find it in purple or red to go with her olive-toned skin.

The Cinderella Project was born after MacKenzie, a human rights lawyer, saw an item on Oprah about a similar project in Chicago. There, the organizers collected gowns and distributed them in church basements throughout the year.

"What if I took that, but turned it into more of a mentorship idea," she recalls thinking to herself.

MacKenzie knew the stats. She knew that at-risk grade 12s often drop out of school with just months to go.

"I thought, "What can we do to show that if they stay in school, there is a reward for that."

"But when I started this I had no idea how powerful it would be," she says, adding that the 400 volunteers, including A-list seamstresses and tailors, photographers and movie industry professiona- eyed.

Since that a first year, Mackenzie has helped about 80 projects get started in cities as diverse as Courtenay and Los Angeles. The project has also grown to include bursaries so that the students can get into the post secondary program they dream of.

For Pogue, that's the event-planning program at BCIT where she is now. Chelseahopes to do a public relations degree at Kwantlen and then maybe do PR for charities.

"I want to be someone who can change the world," she says.

"That would be my way of saying, 'Ha ha. I made it."

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Cinderella Project lets students feel like a celebrity — and that there is hope.

Cinderella Project lets students feel like a celebrity — and that there is hope.

Photograph by: Handout, Dale Ziegler Photography

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Mad Max
February 21, 2009 - 8:51 PM
 Nice to read a happy story. Congratulations and best wishes to all connected with the Cinderella Project – volunteers, helpers and the participants themselves.
February 21, 2009 - 6:21 PM
 Happy 10th Anniversary Cinderella Project! Heather MacKenzie is an amazing woman who has a heart larger then life, you feel her passion and want to somehow be a part of this fantastic project; that is and has been locally addressing the needs of our future...our Youth. Heather, you have been the wish come true for so many kids and for that you are admired by people that know you and others that just know of you. Congratulations for taking action on your vision, you are a true inspiration!
February 21, 2009 - 12:22 PM
 I salute the Ms. MacKenzie for starting this project. I saw the good it did in Courtenay. I owned one of the flower shops that did corsages and bouttonaires for the Cinderella project. It was one of the highlights of the Grad season to be able to contribute. Sometimes some of these grads would visit the shop and discuss corsages, colors, flowers etc. and drop little hints that they were part of the project. You bet we went that one step further. Too many kids these days have too big a load on their shoulders for their age. Carry on the good work.
a teacher
February 21, 2009 - 6:43 AM
 A simple gesture, an act of generosity, with the potential to change a life. Utterly brilliant and flamboyantly fun---thank you for giving these kids a chance to hold their heads high, and for telling them, in a very real way, that they are valued.
February 20, 2009 - 8:10 PM
 I think this is great! I work at a high school, and one of the students I work with will be recieivng this same gift. It's wonderful!
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