At a time when many families are having to recalculate budgets, a traditional rite of passage for Australian teenagers can feel out of reach.
Pauline Leake and Gillian Southwell were the women behind an initiative named Formally Yours that helps to lighten the financial load of the formal season.
It gave young people from the Queanbeyan-Palerang region the chance to browse donated items and pick out their looks for their formal at no cost.
Ms Southwell said this meant every child could have a traditional formal experience.
“It boosted their confidence to know they were fully decked out in what they needed for their formal,” she said.
“A formal is important – that’s the end of your high school life, and your school life, if you don’t go on to university.”
And there’s good news for those with younger teenagers or those who missed out on donating this year: the free-of-charge shop is set to return in 2024.
“We’re going to open up bigger and better next year,” Ms Leake said.
“I actually had a donation yesterday, and we’re already accepting donations and will be all through to next year.”
While Queanbeyan Leagues Club hosted and Supreme Dry Cleaners provided its services, there are plans to bring in local businesses in 2024 to expand the range of items available to teenagers.
The store was based in a pop-up shop and had men’s and women’s clothing, make-up, jewellery, ties, shoes and other formal attire.
Ms Leake saw a clear impact on the youths as they assembled their fancy outfits for their formals.
“We had so many kids come through – happy, lovely kids,” she said.
“When they were on their way out, they just had these big smiles and we got lots of hugs from them and the parents.”
Ms Southwell said the strong response from young people and their families in the Queanbeyan-Palerang region did not come as a surprise, as many families were struggling with the rising cost of living.
People from far-away places like Canberra or Cootamundra also visited the shop as they passed through Queanbeyan, she said.
“It doesn’t matter what your income is – everybody’s struggling, everybody’s mortgages have gone up,” she said.
“There were a lot of them [teenagers] who would be gobsmacked that they could take their items home.
“They’d take a dress, they’d clutch their jewellery, the shoes and make-up.”
But the need was matched with strong – and positive – support from the community.
“We had so many volunteers, and they were brilliant,” Ms Leake said.
“We’ve made a lot of new friends through the volunteers.
“There were days where we didn’t think we’d do it without our volunteers, because it would get so busy.”
Ms Leake said there were benefits for the two women as well.
“Gillian and I are both involved in other charity work and things like that, but this has been a great one,” she said.
“Seeing the kids and parents so happy has been very heartwarming.”