Maybe you forgot about Marshalltown. News moves fast these days, after all.
In July, the Iowa community about an hour northeast of Des Moines was devastated by a strong tornado that injured 10 people and destroyed more than 800 buildings, including 89 homes. The storm struck a low-income neighborhood and the city’s downtown business district. Brick walls tumbled into the streets. Emergency response workers called it “a humanitarian disaster.”
The new school year began with many families still living with friends or relatives while they struggle to repair their homes. So administrators at Marshalltown High School weren’t expecting a high turnout for the homecoming dance scheduled for later this month.
But this weekend, an Omaha dress shop owner is driving 700 dresses to the high school cafeteria, giving them away to many teenage girls who might have otherwise skipped the dance.
Terri Smieja, owner of Omaha’s Cinderella Dress Outlet, will deliver the dresses on Saturday morning. Junior and senior girls can take the dresses home for free. Freshman and sophomores will pay $15. After the dance, the dresses are theirs to keep.
Smieja was inspired to donate the garments to the girls of Marshalltown, a town of about 27,000, after hearing from a friend, Paula Wilcher, who visited the area after the tornado.
“She said ... ‘Oh my gosh, Terri, it’s so bad. I don’t know how they’re going to get their lives back together,’ ” Smieja said. “It’s our sister state, and I just thought ‘This is crazy.’ You hear about it once on the news and, from that point, that’s all you hear. Nobody really understood that it affected a lot of people.”
One of the businesses destroyed by the storm was a downtown dress shop, which has not reopened. The other retailer in town where girls could buy dresses, Younkers, closed as part of a nationwide shuttering in August.
So, when Smieja heard that some administrators at the high school were expecting a disappointing homecoming dance this year, she knew she was in a unique position to help.
Dresses rented from Smieja’s Cinderella Formal Gown Rental in Ralston are later sold in the outlet, located in the Crossroads Mall. To prepare for the giveaway, she and Wilcher collected more than 600 dresses from both stores and took in 100 more dresses donated by the community.
“I’ve been very blessed to have a store and have extra dresses,” she said. “And, you know, it’s a worthy cause.”
At the high school, about 70 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch, said Andrew Potter, communications director for the Marshalltown Community School District.
Since the storm, the town has seen a huge outpouring of support from around the country, including donations of food and clothing, Potter said. Day by day, things are getting better, but total recovery will take some time, he said. Some families are still struggling with the basics, like finding a permanent place to live.
“We had a lot of families in need before the tornado,” Potter said.
So the dresses are a welcome lift: “She’s made it a lot easier for more students to participate (in homecoming).”
Smieja hopes she doesn’t get too emotional when she sees the girls pick out their dresses Saturday morning. She doesn’t feel like a hero, she said. It just seemed like the right thing to do.
“I just wanted to help the girls,” she said. “When devastation happens, by the time you hear about it, that’s just when it began. Their lives have changed forever, and then it gets forgotten by everybody. It’s just beginning for them.”