Bella Project helps outfit west central Minnesota girls for prom

WILLMAR -- Michelle Syverson stood in the dressing room and turned to show off the strapless ball gown she had tried on."I love the color green," she said, and the dress with its beaded and fitted top fit her perfectly.Michelle, a junior at Kerkh...

Belles of the ball
Shelia Johannes, left, and daughter, Mikayla, look Friday through some of the prom dresses in the Bella Project’s storefront location at the Kandi Mall. The Bella Project is loaning prom dresses to local high school girls for this year’s prom. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR - Michelle Syverson stood in the dressing room and turned to show off the strapless ball gown she had tried on.
“I love the color green,” she said, and the dress with its beaded and fitted top fit her perfectly.
Michelle, a junior at Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg High School, said it would be her prom dress.
“It’s green, and sparkly, and it fit me,” she said with a smile.
Kirsten Tebben, also a KMS junior, chose a dress, a cream-colored gown with layers of lace. She liked it because “it was different,” she said.
The girls were among the first to take home prom dresses Friday afternoon after shopping at The Bella Project, a program that provides dresses for high school girls in the area. The shop near the food court in the Kandi Mall was filled with pretty dresses and smiling, laughing girls shortly after it opened at 4 p.m. Friday.
The dress giveaway will continue today from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Donations of lightly-used in-style prom dresses will be accepted today at the shop, too.
This is the second year for the Bella Project. Last year, it was a Willmar Senior High program, organized by staff members Jodi Neis, co-director of the prom and a paraprofessional; Deb Kleven, a child guide; counselor Sharon Tollefson; and Sheila Johannes, a paraprofessional.
The Bella Project runs on the strength of donated dresses from families in the area and the work of the four women who came up with the idea.
This year, the project has moved to the Kandi Mall, and it’s expanded to other school districts in the area.
Dresses are free, and there’s no questions asked.
Going to prom can be an expensive proposition, the organizers say, and any girl is welcome to choose a dress. Girls may keep the dresses or return them so they can be used again next year.
The dresses were every color imaginable, and the girls could choose long or short, dark or bright, sophisticated or downright girly.
For Virginia Leyva, a Willmar senior, it needed to be “a simple one that looks nice” and not “distracting.”
Marlen Mireles, a senior in Willmar, said she liked blue as she watched girls browse through the racks. She said she’d wait a while and think about it before she made a final choice.
Dresses were given away shortly before the Willmar prom in the first year.
This year, the dresses are available earlier, “because girls are already out buying their dresses,” Neis said. “We wanted to catch them before they went out and bought dresses.”
Donations keep the program running, too.
“The Kandi Mall has been so gracious to us,” Kleven said. The mall donated the space for the Bella Project shop and provided tall racks for hanging the long dresses.
Size markers for the racks and hangers were borrowed from Herberger’s.
Others businesses have donated prizes for drawings and for the gift bags given to each girl when she leaves.
Willmar students also donated their time to help decorate the store and to decorate and coordinate the display in the shop’s window: Marlen Mireles, Mikayla Johannes, Ana Serrano, Maddy Oswood and Rose Jackson.

In 42 years in the newspaper industry, Linda Vanderwerf has worked at several daily newspapers in Minnesota, including the Mesabi Daily News, now called the Mesabi Tribune in Virginia. Previously, she worked for the Las Cruces Sun-News in New Mexico and the Rapid City Journal in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She has been a reporter at the West Central Tribune for nearly 27 years.

Vanderwerf can be reached at email: or phone 320-214-4340
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