By: Chelsea Ann Rovnan
Back in the Spring of 2012, high school senior Rachel Malampy’s world came crashing down. Senior prom was around the corner. She had the perfect date and her dream dress: a lavender form-fitting gown with beading around the top, cutouts on the side of the torso and a long pleated train to flow behind her tall and slim frame. She was ecstatic. But she was missing one thing.
Malampy attended Archbishop Ryan, a Roman Catholic high school in Northeast Philadelphia, for four years. One year’s worth of tuition there costs $6,450. When financial obligations – such as tuition payments – are not met, students are restricted from participating in school sports, activities and events. And that’s exactly what happened to Malampy.
“I didn’t know I wasn’t going to be able to go to prom at the time,” said Malampy, who had already bought a pricey non-returnable dress. The once exuberant teenager was left feeling hopeless. “I ended up not being able to go due to financial reasons.”
Not being able to go to prom wasn’t the end of the world for Malampy, but it was still devastating. She had been looking forward to it for four years. And missing the big night wasn’t the only high school milestone she had to miss out on.
“I couldn’t go to prom. I couldn’t walk [with my class] at graduation. That really took a toll on me. It messed me up for a good couple of months,” Malampy said. “But, I’m here two years later and now I’m doing something even better.”
She could have easily let these disappointments send her into a downward spiral of depression, one filled with resentment and anger towards her parents for not having her tuition paid off. But instead of letting a few setbacks ruin her entire high school experience, Malampy decided to turn her lowest moment into something that would help others just like her.
Fast-forward two years and you’ll find 20-year-old Malampy working the front desk at Academy Injury and Health Center. The office stretches far beyond where Malampy answers phones, schedules appointments and helps direct patients to their private meeting rooms. To the left of the desk there is a long hallway lined with doors to appointment rooms, which have been transformed into dressing rooms. At the end of the hallway, there is a wide-open area. The exercise machines seemed to be pushed aside and there’s not a patient in sight. The room is filled with 220+ dresses of various colors. The young and determined Malampy now stands in the center of the room surrounded by racks of donated prom dresses, all of which are to be given to girls who need them. This is Rachel’s Prom Fantasy, a prom drive to help less fortunate girls.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays Malampy’s shift at the office starts at 2:30pm. But she found herself coming in as early as 6:30am in order to contact the area’s high school counselors to see if they knew of any girls who were struggling financially. With her Facebook page titled: Rachel’s Prom Fantasy, she has 279 likes and counting. The page contains all necessary information for both donors and girls in need, such as the drive’s address and purpose: “Our goal is to make less fortunate high school girls in the Philadelphia area feel as pretty as you did! A lot of girls are unable to attend their proms due to financial restraints, donate your old dresses and give them that opportunity!”
The idea came to her this past New Year’s Eve, while Deneen McCaffery was doing Malampy’s hair. Malampy commented on how she felt like she was getting ready for prom and the sentimental story of how she never got to experience prom came up. With a little brainstorming, the two came up with the idea of starting a prom drive.
Prom drives have become a thing to do across the country. There’s a website called DonateMyDress.org where girls can go if they are either in need of a gown or looking to donate one. The site helps them to find a drive near them. Sites like this encourage girls all over to start drives like Malampy’s in their areas, especially if their community doesn’t already have one. Malampy’s boss loved the idea and was so touched that he offered up the office as the host location – free of charge.
Working at the front desk since October has taught Malampy a lot about life, as well as what she may want to do in the future. Recently, Malampy has been certified as a Chiropractic Assistant, but she has other plans for years to come. Currently a student at Bucks Community College, she’s majoring in Criminal Justice and has even thought of becoming a cop.
Dr. Frank McCaffery and his previously mentioned wife Deneen McCaffery have known the bright-eyed brunette since the day she was born and live next door to her parents – who she no longer lives with. “It was a bad situation and I had to get out of it,” she explained. And now she lives with the McCafferys who love her dearly and treat her like one of their own. “They are the perfect people I need to be with,” Malampy said. With their guidance, she knows in her heart for sure: “It’s my purpose in life to help people.”
As girls arrive at Rachel’s Prom Fantasy, they make their way into the office and pass the front desk… but they don’t see a Chiropractor’s office. Instead they see seven long racks busting with beautiful dresses circled around a huge mirror placed against the far back wall. Malampy makes her way around to the girls to introduce herself. She gets a feel for what each girl is looking for in a dress and starts helping them pull from the racks. D. McCaffery and her best friend Barbara Consalvo help out as well. The women address the girls by name and make them feel comfortable. Malampy reminds herself, “I don’t want girls to go through what I did.”
Malampy, who has been in their shoes, tells girls to “try not to dwell on the fact that maybe the parents can’t really afford a prom dress or can’t afford the prom expenses. And just try to reach out.” She added, “You know, you don’t always have to spend so much money on a prom dress. Go to maybe a thrift store or maybe even reach out to your local area and see if there’s any prom drives like mine available. Definitely not stress because there’s always a possibility and there’s always a way.”
Consalvo knows Malampy well. The best way she could describe Malampy was to read a quote by the 14th Dalai Lama, “This is exactly what Rachel is: ‘The true essence of humankind is kindness. There are other qualities which come from education or knowledge, but it is essential, if one wishes to be a genuine human being and impart satisfying meaning to one’s existence, to have a good heart.’ And that’s what you have.” As she looks at Malampy, the girl she has seen grow so much in just a short amount of time, she tears up. “You have a really good heart and you’ve learned it over the years with everything you’ve been through.” Now hugging the girl she’s so glad to know, a teary-eyed Consalvo continues, “She cares about all these kids.” Malampy exchanged phone numbers with all of the girls, asking them each to send her a picture on the night of their prom so she could make a scrapbook with them.
One woman, Marie Bay a single-mother of two, was awestruck by Rachel’s generosity, “This place is so needed. I would never have been able to afford such a beautiful dress.” Bay’s daughters, Angela and Sanniyah, attend Friends Select School (FSS), a Quaker school for grades pre-K to 12th grade. Tuition for one student to attend FSS costs $31,480 a year. Coming from a low-income family, Bay said, “You don’t know how much this helps the girls. This is a wonderful thing Rachel’s doing.”
Her oldest daughter, Angela is a senior at FSS who found out about Malampy’s dress drive through Facebook. Angela fell in love with a gorgeously beaded golden gown from Rachel’s drive, which had never been worn. It was a $600 dress with the price tag still attached. Angela and her mother didn’t pay a cent.
Bay’s younger daughter, Sanniyah, couldn’t get over how welcoming the women were. She appreciated Rachel for helping her sister and said that her and her family “didn’t feel judged at all.” Angela, one of the 20+ girls Malampy helped, couldn’t stop smiling. She proceeded to twirl in front of the mirror. “I honestly can’t thank her enough.”
As Bay saw the pure joy in Angela’s face, old memories were brought to the surface. Much like Malampy, her parents couldn’t afford to send her off to prom, but because of Malampy’s selflessness Bay was now able to give her daughter the opportunity she never had. Tears of sadness mixed in with tears of joy rolled down the hard-working mother’s face. Consalvo walked over to hug and cry with her, as she shared how her family hadn’t had the money at the time to send her to her prom, either. Malampy saw how touched people were in ways she never thought possible. Maybe Malampy missing the prom wasn’t such a bad thing after all.
Chelsea Ann Rovnan is currently a junior journalism major at Temple University and fulfilling a spring internship at The Philadelphia Inquirer. She can be contacted at [email protected].