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Mass. woman honors daughter’s memory with free prom gowns

AMESBURY, Mass. — Preparing to open her second season gifting prom dresses to young ladies in need, Tammi’s Closet founder Betty Vitale headed down to the Main Street church where she runs the program and found a surprise package waiting from UPS.

“There was no card, no nothing,” Vitale said. “No name, no return address.”

The Amesbury resident opened the box to find five brand-new prom dresses.

“The tags were still on them,” Vitale said. “There was a black one, there was a white one, I think there was a pink one. It was very powerful.”

Vitale has been feeling the power of her community’s generosity since she opened Tammi’s Closet on the campus of the Rock Church last year. Named in honor of the daughter Vitale lost in a car accident in 1996, Tammi’s Closet supplied 17 dresses to young ladies who could use a little help managing the costs of the special night.

Customers came from Amesbury to Cape Cod to Weymouth, Georgetown, Revere, Byfield, Exeter, N.H., and all the way from Maine in 2014. She’s expecting many more this year. 

“This was 17 girls that could go to the prom that otherwise wouldn’t have been able to,” Vitale said. “They were so excited and happy. One of them cried and it made me cry.”

With 75 dresses ready to go and more on the way, Vitale is opening the door to Tammi’s Closet even wider this year. Shoes, accessories and jewelry are also starting to come in, as well as a pair of tuxedos for two lucky young men.

“It has really gone wild this year,” Vitale said. “I actually got a call from Lawrence High School and now girls from Lawrence are coming down.”

With a new website, developed for her for free by an Amesbury resident, on the way, Vitale has also been taking to social media to spread the word. Merrimac’s Cozy Cleaners pressed 10 dresses free of charge last week and Amesbury’s Trendsetters Boutique sent over 12 dresses after donating 10 gowns last year.

“We try to help each other out and help our neighbors out,” Trendsetters owner Jaylene Holbrook Buonodono said. “I really think it is that kind of community. I love being a part of it. That is what makes it go ’round. Help thy neighbor.”

An Amesbury resident, Buonodono has operated her Main Street boutique, which carries new and upscale consignment clothing and accessories for teens and women, for the past six years. When Buonodono receives consigned gowns during the later part of the prom season, she knows what to do.

“When people come in for different reasons, I say I have a good home for them,” Buonodono said. “There are all different styles and colors from strapless to full gowns and skirts to slim dresses, floral dresses, sequins and plain. I think there is a good possibility a girl will find a dress in there, which I think is the point.”

Donna Gray, wife of Amesbury mayor Ken Gray, is volunteering again with the program this year. This year’s crop of gowns, which currently numbers 75, is growing by the day, she said.

“The outpouring has been just incredible,” Gray said. “We have so many gowns and I am hoping the word spreads from last year. There are so many situations that lead to not having a perfect gown and we have them. I really am a small part of this and I am honored to do it.”

When asked what her daughter might think of all the prom gown generosity, Vitale paused a moment then said simply, “She would probably tell me she loved me and thank you.”

Jim Sullivan writes for the Daily News of Newburyport, Mass.