Warrant Officer 3 Chivon Cyrus will wear a black, sparkling gown to the party after her Army retirement ceremony — and it didn't cost her a dime.
She walked out of a shop at Fort Eustis, Virginia, on April 13 with the gown, thanks to the fledgling Operation: Deploy Your Dress, which offers its formal wear free to anyone with a military ID card.
The nonprofit organization has shops at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, and Fort Bliss, Texas, in addition to its shops at Fort Eustis. And in an effort to help more military families in all branches of service, the group has organized a two-day " pop-up event" in the Washington, D.C., area for April 29-30, with about 1,000 gowns already on hand.
Cyrus estimates her gown would have cost her at least $300.
"This is phenomenal," she said. "There's a saying that the Army gives you $100 and it takes back $99. That's not true in this case. These Army wives, and the donors, are giving back."
Eligible shoppers can choose one dress and one accessory from the collection of shoes, shawls, jewelry and purses. There's also a limited selection of men's formal wear.
A few of the 1,000 dresses donated to date for the event April 29-30 at AUSA in Arlington, Va.
Photo Credit: Luc Dunn/AUSA
Customers from military families of a variety of ranks have benefited, said Yvonne Coombes, an Army wife who is one of the founders. The wide range of shoppers has included military youth buying prom dresses, young spouses new to the military, and some who have been affiliated with the military for years but have never gone to a military ball, she said.
In a little over a year since the idea was born among a group of Army wives in December 2015, they’ve given away about 2,500 dresses. The first shop opened at Fort Bliss last year, and another opened at Fort Eustis after Coombes moved there when her husband was transferred.
While it's not unusual to do dress swaps in units and among friends and neighbors, their initial plan was to broaden the idea to get more dresses and people into the pool.
"We were trying to figure how to get attendance up at military balls, especially younger couples," said Coombes.
And since gowns can be expensive, she said, "we felt if we could change one piece of that financial strain, we could make a difference."
They underestimated the popularity of the idea.
"This was intended to be a one-time event at Fort Bliss," Coombes said. "It's exploded since then. It's a great problem, constantly trying to figure out how to grow. ... Our ideal scenario is to be at as many military installations as possible."
Operation: Deploy Your Dress has no budget for rent or other expenses; shop helpers are volunteers, all items are donated, and the group partners with organizations that help them find free space on installations. The group recently received tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service as a nonprofit organization.
D.C. EVENT DETAILS
The D.C.-area giveaway is set for April 29 and 30 at the Association of the U.S. Army headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. Younger enlisted members and their families will get first crack — from 10 a.m. to noon on April 29, those in ranks E-1 to E-6 will be able to shop before others.
2 day event in Washington, D.C. region
Photo Credit: Operation Deploy Your Dress
Donors have been dropping off gowns, accessories and other items at a variety of collection points around the area. They hope to do more of these "pop-up events" in other areas, Coombes said.
AUSA may help the group expand because they have chapters around the country, she said. Meanwhile, staff members at AUSA headquarters have been enthusiastic about volunteering for this event, said Patty Barron, AUSA's family readiness director.
Cyrus' dress is on its second "deployment." While shopping, she met Meredith Hummel, the Army wife who donated the dress, and is a volunteer in the shop. Hummel received the dress at the Fort Bliss shop a year ago and donated it to the Fort Eustis shop after she and her husband were transferred to that installation.
"She told me it was a pleasure to donate so that someone else could enjoy it," Cyrus said.
The response from donors has been heartwarming, Coombes said, with dresses coming from all over the country as word spreads.Donors include military families, civilians and dress shops with excess inventory.
Many donors mail their gowns to the organization. The mailing address changes depending on which shop is in more need of dresses, Coombes said. The organization is developing a website, but for up-to-date information, visit its Facebook page.
"A lot of times people have bought a beautiful dress for one occasion. They hang on to to it for some emotional connection. They don't want to send it to a thrift shop. But they hear about us, and find us worthy to give that dress they have this emotional connection to," Coombes said.
She said she prefers not to talk about the costs of gowns, and that while the group has received some high-end dresses, they simply mix them in with the others.
They also often receive dresses and accessories with messages attached. One clutch purse included a note that said, "This clutch was given to me for graduation in 1954," Coombes said.
"That's so wonderful, that she felt our organization is worthy of something she'd kept for such a long time, that was so near and dear to her."
Karen Jowers writes about military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.