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Lifestyle // Good Neighbors
Christina O’Connor

Valerie Schmidt

Photo from Valerie Schmidt

Photo from Valerie Schmidt

Coming from a family with limited financial means, Valerie Schmidt didn’t have a lot growing up. While her classmates donned nice outfits, Schmidt often had to sport hand-me-downs.

“I am fortunate now that I have a great career and I have the means to do things, but as a young girl I didn’t have that,” says Schmidt, who now is an adviser at Ameriprise Financial.

In her spare time, Schmidt helps other low-income girls as president of The Bella Project, a nonprofit that aims to make prom affordable for underprivileged high-schoolers by providing prom dresses and other accessories.

“This is something that can give a young girl confidence,” she says. “That is what moves me because I remember being that girl.”

The Bella Project reaches out to homeless shelters and nonprofits serving low-income families first, followed by public school students, then private school students. One stipulation is the girls must be in school to participate: “We are trying to reward them for staying in school.”

The Bella Project was founded by Amanda Ross in 2009 and has gone from serving 100 girls to 330. Schmidt is looking to increase that number to 500 this academic year. Each girl, with the help of an adult personal shopper, gets to browse more than 1,000 dresses, shoes, accessories and makeup.

“We can just be their fairy godmother to help them have the outfit of their choice,” Schmidt says.

The Bella Project itself thrives on the goodwill of others – a majority of its materials are donations, which Schmidt says have come from throughout the country. For her work, Schmidt recently was presented with the Ameriprise Financial Community Impact Award, which honors Ameriprise employees for outstanding service. The award’s $2,500 grant will go toward purchasing new dresses and shoes, and covering storage costs.

In addition to supplying prom-related goods, The Bella Project also recently hosted a prom for about 30 young patients at Kapiolani hospital, complete with decorations, a DJ, a photographer and a dance crew.

“That was amazing,” Schmidt says. “The kids liked it, and the parents were just so moved.”

During the event, a father of one of the girls came up to Schmidt. “Thank you for doing this,” he said, “because I don’t think my daughter is going to live to see her prom.”

For Schmidt, that sums up why The Bella Project is important. “It’s not just a dress,” she says, “it’s a moment.”

Next up, The Bella Project plans to provide dresses for Peter’s Prom, a project that hosts dances for special needs students.

The next shopping event will be held March 1, 2014, at Central Union Church. To sign up or to learn more, email charise.thebellaproject@gmail.com or visit thebellaprojecthawaii.org.

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