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Sadness turns to tears of joy

Marissa must be smiling today in heaven

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POSTED March 14, 2010 3:36 a.m.
Tears, smiles and hugs were the order of the day in Ripon Saturday as some 200 girls from all over the region picked out prom dresses for their special graduation occasions – without paying a dime for the gowns.

Just inside the front window of a downtown Ripon storefront a mannequin named “Betty” wore the most outstanding gowns from the display racks.  Betty had been a hand-me-down from the corporate world, having been used in Las Vegas convention shows displaying telephone headsets until her age caught up with her.

Every gown that was put onto Betty’s frame to model was quickly chosen and went out the door in the arms of a high school senior.

To some is was another step toward closure of losing their friend and classmate Marissa McLeod in December who first launched the dress collection effort to ensure that any girl who couldn’t afford a prom dress would not be left at home.

It was Marissa’s wish that no girl should sit home in tears because she didn’t have a gown for her Cinderella night.

Many Ripon High students – 40 in all – took shifts to help and be a part of the dress-a-thon in memory of their friend.  Others coming through the front door obviously felt like they were being given a red carpet treatment. Even one of the Ripon High guys, Mitch Meler, 17, was there all day long helping wherever he could to make things run more smoothly.

Smiles & tears of joy replace the sadness
While there continues to be certain sadness in the air remembering Marissa, it seemed to be all but totally replaced by smiles and tears of joy in tribute to what her legacy making a difference in today’s tough economy.

Mitch was still there after the store closed using his elbow grease on the windows, making sure the front would be sparkling for another crowd this morning.  Mitch said his girl friend was Marissa’s best friend, and he just wanted to be there to see what he could do.  In addition to Mitch, Alec Vitalle was on hand as well.

Out of sheer curiosity I had to be at the former home of the Ripon Drug Store Saturday morning where the walls had been freshly painted and racks of prom dresses filled the carpeted 5,000-square-foot building with coffee, juice and rolls by the entrance.

The first girl to walk in the door shortly after the store opened at 9 a.m. found her perfect match in a black dress and shoes, but she later broke down crying in sheer joy saying she wouldn’t have been going to her dance without the help of Marissa’s Closet.

A Modesto High School senior walked into the carpeted area just to see what it was all about and found an exceptional gown – knowing she wouldn’t be going.   After putting it on she lit up and then became very serious saying that she loved the gown – it was perfect – but in a totally serious tone said she wouldn’t be able to go to her prom anyway.  

Marissa’s family members chip in for two tickets
Marissa’s family members asked what would keep her away.  She hesitated and then slowly admitted that her mother was single and just recently had surgery. The money was just not there to buy the tickets for admission.

Not only did she get her dream dress, but her dream as well with two tickets to her prom paid for on top of it.  The family members dug into their purses to make it happen

The hard luck stories were rampant. Another woman had lost her house in Modesto, and said she hadn’t had any idea how she was going to provide an evening gown for her daughter until she walked through that front door.

Some 200 dresses went to girls who left with stars in their eyes from Lodi, Stockton, Galt, Ceres and Turlock.  Another 100 dresses were donated at the downtown location on Saturday.  At 6:30 that first night, as the crew was cleaning up for the day, another 20 prom dresses were dropped off.

Girl after girl and mother after mother related similar sentiments all day long to Marissa’s mom Melinda and her aunt Christina.  After months of preparation Melinda Shaw admitted, “Finally I got the feeling I was doing a good thing.”

Her mother Debbie noted how hard this has been on her daughter in organizing the event.  She said she has had to tell her story so many times to so many people, service clubs as well as radio and TV that she has had some real down days.  Melinda Shaw has gone to many school districts and high schools from Pleasanton to Turlock and as far north at Lodi to spread the word that every girl will have the opportunity to go to her prom this year by just making the trip to Ripon.

Alternations were done on 20 dresses Saturday, mostly by a family friend Jennifer “Jen” Moser who had traveled to Ripon from Pleasanton with her daughter Mackenzie Huff, 17, to be part of the action.  Not only did they plan to work the entire weekend, they also put out the cost of a motel room. Mackenzie has opened a sister chapter in Pleasanton collecting her own nearly new prom dresses for the sheer love of what she is doing along with her natural seamstress mother.

“When I pinned up the girls,” Moser said, “and they knew it fit, you could just see the sparkles come into their eyes.”

Dress donor leaves store in tears
Lathrop Community Church youth minister Mia Sandoval said she dropped in just out of curiosity and to donate a dress,  thinking it would be just a small booth affair. She left in tears saying she felt really blessed in what she saw in the quality of the clothing and seeing the girls being given their prom dresses.

As a youth minister she said she knows of some 20 girls who will be thrilled when they see what is waiting for them today – she is sending them all to Ripon.

One senior found a dress she really liked but it was a little large for her.  “Can’t we fix it?” she asked her mom.  When told it would be altered right there she questioned how much it would cost and was quickly told it was gratis – she couldn’t believe her ears.

Another Modesto High senior found a dress that looked very similar to the one worn by “Belle” from the production, “Beauty and the Beast.”  The women helping her told the senior she was definitely going to be the “Belle” of the ball.

In addition to the high school students many family friends were on hand from San Francisco, Capitola and Pleasanton with another 17-year-old guy Jordan Huff coming from that city.  They guys made sure they proved it wasn’t just a girl thing.

Debbie Kriletich, the spunky grandmother, has been staying up sewing on a missing sequin here and there – among other alterations – and getting to bed at 3 a.m. and up at 6 in the morning.  She made sure her husband Matt’s painters got the interior of the building refurbished for Saturday’s opening with a first class paint job.

“I don’t think people expected what they saw when they walked through the door,” she said.  I think it all went really well.”  

It was Grandmother Debbie Kriletich who saved mannequin “Betty” from the trash heap when her firm told her to get rid of it.  She couldn’t do it – knowing it would come in handy some day.  Betty made a big hit in the front window dressed in proper prom attire after having been in Debbie’s attic for years.

And then there was the 11-year-old Alex who was going strong all day long performing more than her share of community service for her school – the University Charter School in Modesto.

She is preparing a power point presentation for her class project with over 200 photographs she has taken of the preparations for the event and the prom give-away day itself.   Alex even went to a KAT Country broadcast where she was on the air. The fifth grader was on the floor throughout the day wearing a smaller party gown of her own – just a little giggly knowing it belonged to her Aunt Melinda until she was a sophomore in high school.

The tired group of family and friends will open Marissa’s Closet again today at 9 a.m. on Main Street in downtown Ripon.
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