Emily McLeod will never forget the first girl she helped to pick out the perfect prom dress. It was ruffled, pink and very princess. Her face lit up, and there was a sense of relief; this was the one.
“It completely warmed my heart,” Emily said.
But the relief the girl felt wasn’t just from being able to find “the one,” it was being able to find it for free. At Chelsea’s Boutique at Jones High School, students can pick out their formal prom wear at no charge. Emily spends an hour each week here and at the Tiger Den, where students and the community can get everyday necessities like coats, clothes, deodorant and even a microwave dinner for free.
Her work has earned her the Chelsea A. Wynn Community Service Award. Ivy Fowler, the shops’ founder, presented the award to Emily, and said that a young person willing to take the time to help others is something special.
“It’s a rarity that you have 16-year-olds who do that,” Fowler said.
Building self esteem
Emily, a junior at Winter Park High School, spent a year collecting prom dresses for a different nonprofit, but when it closed she knew she had to find a new way to help. Chelsea’s Boutique and the Tiger Den just seemed to fit. Every Thursday she speaks with the students who come in, gives them a little fashion advice — Ivy joked that her opinion is ignored if Emily is around — and organizes the three or four bags of clothes she collects and donates each week. Emily said she likes that she can help the students feel good about themselves.
“Everybody should have the opportunity to look and feel your best,” she said.
“A lot of self-esteem is wrapped up in what [teenagers] look like,” said Emily’s mom, Jennifer McLeod. “There’s pressure to look good and dress a certain way.”
The Den is home
But it’s not all about looking good. At the Tiger Den, which is also open to the community, students from Jones High School can stop by to get a pencil for class, a sandwich before football practice and a little love and support from “Miss Ivy.” Students who frequent the shop wouldn’t be able to get these items because of their parents’ or guardians’ financial situation, and many live in hotels or are homeless. They linger at the door, and sometimes don’t want to go home. The Tiger Den is more than a store.
“You have to have a place that brings you a sense of comfort and home,” Fowler said. “Children here are not looking for a handout, they want a hand-up.”
Emily said her time at the Tiger Den has really given her a new perspective on life and all that she is lucky to have. Seeing teens every day that she relates to and is friends with having to go without if not for the Tiger Den encourages her to keep helping. She said she’d be a part of this as long as she’s in Florida.
“It’s inspired me to go out there and be active in my community, and to lend a helping hand to all those in need.”
Emily’s work impresses the students who go to the stores, and they can’t believe she’d come all the way to Jones from Winter Park. Their faces light up when they see her, and Fowler likes to call the ninth-graders she mentors “Emily’s kids.” Although Emily doesn’t talk much about her volunteer work at Winter Park High School, students there know about it and look up to her, said Paul Wilhite, an administrator at the school.
Emily inspires Fowler, which is the basis for her community service award. The award was started in honor of Fowler’s niece Chelsea Wynn, who motivated her to open Chelsea’s Boutique. Chelsea collected prom dresses while in hospice battling cancer. She lost her fight against cancer in 2007, but her memory lives on as each year girls find a dress to make their prom night perfect. When Fowler met Emily, she couldn’t believe how much she reminded her of Wynn, a “duplicate” of Chelsea. Her giving nature is extraordinary, Fowler said.
“She’s my hero.”
For more information on how to help the Tiger Den and Chelsea’s Boutique, or to drop off clothes and everyday necessities, stop by Jones High School during school hours or call Ivy Fowler at 321-439-5538.
You can also donate clothes any time at Jennifer McLeod’s store The Primrose Shop, located at 2804 Corrine Drive in Orlando.