Operation Deploy Your Dress (ODYD) has enabled more than 3,000 military spouses and female service members to do just that.
This military spouse-created nonprofit accepts donations of gently used formalwear, shoes and accessories that are distributed free of charge to military spouses and service members at four military bases across the country. The goal is to make attending military balls more affordable.
ODYD began at Fort Bliss in Texas when co-founders Renee Chapman, Melissa Riely, Yvonne Coombes and Ronya Rendon discovered their husbands’ Army units all had upcoming balls. They combined forces for a multi-unit dress swap that took on a life of its own after receiving national media attention.
“Dress swaps are not a novel idea,” Chapman admits. “They go on at every installation all the time. But we were unique in that we were able to tap into the civilian world. It’s a great niche, because how many times do people, especially civilians, purchase a dress for a wedding or special event and never wear it again but it is too special to donate to Goodwill or Salvation Army.”
After Fox News interviewed Chapman in December 2015 about the then-fledgling organization, donations flooded in. The women anticipated national and local media exposure might generate a windfall of 200 to 300 dresses. Instead, 5,000 dresses arrived at the Army base.
“I’m not exaggerating when I say some days we had 50 to 60 boxes arrive,” Chapman recalls. “It was insane.”
A good problem to have
Chapman, Coombes and Rendon initially stored inventory in their garages and basements before realizing they had a problem, a good problem, but a problem nonetheless because of the overwhelming number of dresses in their possession.
“We had planned to do a one-or-two-day [dress-giveaway]-type event and then go back to our normal, regular lives,” Coombes said. “We quickly decided the need is not there for just a month’s worth of balls. Balls go on at military installations year-round. There are military children who have proms. The need is there all the time.”
Operation Deploy Your Dress gained a permanent home at Fort Bliss when the Garrison Commander provided space in an empty storefront in a community building on post. When the organization became a part of the Fort Bliss Spouses’ Club, the charity found staying power. In 2016, ODYD expanded to Fort Eustis in Virginia and Joint Base Lewis McChord in Washington state, while its newest location is at Fort Irwin in California.
A mission to help families save
Though ODYD’s five co-founders all have PCSed from Fort Bliss, the all-volunteer organization has continued to thrive. “We’ve done a very good job of not stepping on each other’s toes,” Coombes says. “We work very well together. I honestly don’t know how it has worked, but it has worked beautifully.”
From the start, their goal was to bring down the cost of attending military balls, which for junior service members quickly can soar out of reach when the price of tickets, transportation, spouses’ formalwear, lodging and childcare are combined.
Liz McKenrick, Operation Deploy Your Dress’s fifth co-founder, recalls the first time she saw a young Fort Bliss spouse try on the donated dress that would become her ball gown.
“She burst into tears. She said she never had been able to afford to go to a military ball. She had heard about them and wanted to be a part of it, but they couldn’t afford the ticket, babysitting and dress.” recalls McKenrick, who today oversees the Fort Eustis ODYD shop while continuing to serve as ODYD’s senior advisor and secretary.
Any military dependent or military ID cardholder–active duty, National Guard, Reserve or retiree–is eligible to receive one dress per calendar year from an Operation Deploy Your Dress shop. Each shop typically has a small selection of civilian formalwear for men as well.
“We make it very clear when you leave with your gown or accessory, it is yours to keep forever if you choose,” says Chapman, now stationed at Fort Irwin, where she helped launch the fourth ODYD location in February. “If you are in love with it and never want to part with it, we’re excited. Of course, if you do feel in your heart you want to donate that gown back, we’d be forever grateful.”
Multiple locations with growth on horizon
Scattered across the country, the four ODYD shops reflect the “personality” of their military base and surrounding community. The original Fort Bliss shop is the most boutique-like space and boasts an inventory displaying a bit of Texas “bling.”
“They are all very different in some ways but then they all have the same feeling as far as our purpose and branding,” McKenrick says.
The Fort Eustis ODYD shop also draws spouses from Virginia-area Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force bases who come to browse a collection of dresses ranging in size from 0 to 36.
“A 30-minute drive is a lot cheaper than a ball gown,” notes Coombes, who helped organize an ODYD “pop up” event in Washington, D.C., last spring. “Boutiques often have a set style they cater to. We can cater to the vast majority of military spouses and service members. We know they come in all shapes and sizes. We’re able to cater to all of those tastes and all of those sizes.”
At Fort Irwin, ODYD has been a welcome addition to the bleak retail landscape in the Mojave Desert.
“Unless you have been to Fort Irwin, I don’t think anyone can grasp how remote we are,” Chapman says. “We are 40 miles from anything. It is an all-day task if you are going to shop for a dress off post.”
When the ODYD shop opened in February, Chapman says about 80% of the inventory came from spouses on post “paying it forward and recycling” their dresses. Chapman’s goal is to expand the shop’s reach for both donations and customers by tapping into the large military presence in Southern California, home to Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base, Naval Base San Diego and Los Angeles Air Force Base.
“We are open to all military spouses,” she says. “We want to spread the word.”
While the initial wave of publicity about their initiative has simmered down, ODYD continues to receive widespread support from the civilian community. Often donations arrive with emotional handwritten notes tying the dress to a still vivid memory.
“The American public, the women of America in particular, are seeing a way they can support our Soldiers and their families,” McKenrick says. “It’s like a hug every time we get a dress – a hug from an American family to a soldier’s family.”
How to get involved
ODYD has been operating on a zero dollars budget, forcing co-founders to seek donations, negotiate deals on Craigslist or dip into their wallets to purchase each shop’s racks, tables and other supplies. With a 509(c)(3) charitable organization designation now in place, ODYD is seeking donations of cash as well as services such as website design.Read comments