Fairy Godmother

American Icons, Featured Article, Hometown Heroes
on April 13, 2014
Jeff Stone

Editor’s Note: American Profile prides itself on celebrating “ordinary” people doing “extraordinary” things. Since 2002, readers have shared their stories about compassionate friends, neighbors and even total strangers for our annual Acts of Kindness issue. “The Kindness Project” tag labels stories spotlighting good people doing good deeds year-round. 

“MOM, I FEEL LIKE A PRINCESS!” says Veronica Rademaker, 14, of St. Paul, Minn., beaming and twirling in a Cinderella like dress in front of a full-length mirror. The hallway is abuzz with other girls searching for formal gowns that will make them feel the same way. Seamstress Jeri Bowers of Waconia, Minn. (pop. 11,222), has heard similar expressions of delight countless times since 2004.

That’s when her son, Alex, told her about a high school classmate who couldn’t attend prom because she couldn’t afford a dress. His comment triggered Bowers’ stinging regret of never having attended her own prom. She found a formal for the girl and she’s been helping others in similar fashion ever since. During the last 10 years, church ministers, high school counselors and principals have referred girls who need prom dresses to Bowers.

She’s altered hundreds of formal gowns, at no charge, and is considered a fairy godmother by thousands of adolescent girls in Minnesota—a fitting title for the tailor-by-trade. To find formals, Bowers rummages through thrift shops and garage sales, looking for low-cost gowns with princess possibilities. People who’ve heard about her mission also donate prom and bridesmaid dresses. “It takes a village,” Bowers says. “If people didn’t donate, I would never be able to do this.”

She also collects accessories—shoes, purses and jewelry—so girls leave completely outfitted for prom after she works her magic with scissors, snips and stitches. Numbering nearly 4,000, Bowers’ dress collection features a cadre of colors and a myriad of materials such as taffeta and tulle, silk and satin. The gowns are organized by size and stored in clear plastic bins in the garage at her home, which also houses her shop, Vista Images, where the girls come for alterations.

Bowers focuses her philanthropic efforts close to home, serving girls who attend eight high schools in and around Carver County. Since 2012, she’s also provided gowns and accessories to teens with muscle, bone and joint conditions who attend the prom at Shriners Hospitals for Children-Twin Cities. She deemed it an appropriate contribution since her late father was a Shriner.

Before the prom, Bowers hauls hundreds of dresses and a smattering of suits to the hospital for a one-day event where throngs of giddy girls and a handful of shy boys choose and try on prom attire, until they find exactly the right look. Although first-time prom attendee, Veronica, began her search with reticence, she left feeling like royalty. Third-time prom attendee Desiree Hilst, 18, of Coon Rapids, Minn. (pop. 61,931), says the annual event creates treasured memories for her and other hospital patients. “I’ve seen kids inwheelchairs and with walkers, all having a good time,” she says. “They are laughing and smiling and not feeling isolated.” By offering and altering dresses, Bowers enhances lives. “Just seeing the smile on everyone’s face—that’s the most rewarding part,” she says. “They get to do something that they couldn’t afford any other way. They wouldn’t be able to have that special moment in their lives. Everyone needs a special moment.”