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Painting the town red, saving green: Operation Deploy Your Dress builds community through gowns during military ball season, beyond

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MARCOA Media
Story by David Poe on 09/16/2019
Inside the old commissary on West Fort Bliss, notes hang; some scribbled on notepad, some printed on frilly, embossed paper, all heartfelt.

"I wore this dress to my daughter's wedding. I felt so beautiful wearing it, I hope another woman has the same feeling."

Beyond the notes in their unassuming frame, a cordoned-off section of the building, which may have been the old commissary's back office, now resides a special, makeshift boutique. Four volunteers are aproned up and ready to serve the growing line of military spouses and Soldiers queuing up just outside the doors on a Thursday afternoon. Everyone is surrounded by racks and racks of gowns, almost 2,500 in all, seemingly of every color, cut and size. Although no money is changing hands, the space looks part consignment shop and part department store liquidation sale.

This is the frontline of Operation Deploy Your Dress.

"Four years ago, it started with a regular dress swap," said Melinda Garcia, an active-duty Army spouse with 24 years of service and the manager of the ODYD shop at Fort Bliss.

One phone call in 2015 and two donated dresses later, soon spurred on by an El Paso television news story on the effort, now almost 25 dresses change hands every week during military ball season. Yesterday's simple dress swap has grown into a burgeoning nonprofit that has spread to seven Army installations.

"Because [of the cost of] tickets, child care, the dress, the shoes, and accessories, some have never been able to attend a military ball. To take $200 off of that cost, they leave here in tears because they are so excited to be going to their first ball," Garcia said. "The spouses leave here emotional."

ODYD collects gently-used and new formal attire to distribute free to military and dependent ID cardholders. Soldiers and military spouses can come to the shop and select one dress and one accessory per year.

"I have been following the group since it started and I'm so happy to see the positive effect it's had. Thank you for all you do."

With the success of the program, due to the transient nature of the military, Garcia said it hasn't come without work.

"We lose volunteers due to PCSs," Garcia said as she signed in guests Aug. 29, managing to keep her focus on the tasks at hand as military kids frantically milled around her in the receiving area while moms took a moment to attack the racks, "but I never leave here thinking why did I come today?' I always leave feeling better than when I came."

"I hope this dress can be worn again by someone who loves it as much as I do."

Beyond saving money during military ball season, ODYD has taken on a life of its own. Started as a grassroots idea, it's become a common ground for Soldiers and spouses to find their designs within the fabric of the military community and accessorize them with confidence.

"This is the longest [my family] has ever lived anywhere," said Garcia, who has been at Bliss for just over five years. She said the best thing about helping build the nonprofit has been the chance to bolster spouses' pocketbooks, as well as their hearts.

"It's about making them feel a part of the military community, because sometimes I feel that spouses get lost in the shuffle," she said. "This brings everyone back together. They're looking for dresses together and supporting each other, and they're excited to do it up' for a night."

The boutique built on benevolence will be on the move this fall due to the old commissary being converted into a mission-essential facility. Look for ODYD at 801 Custer Rd. later this year, where they will share a space with the Fort Bliss Thrift Shop, which is run by the Fort Bliss Spouses Association.

For more details on ODYD and to learn how you can be a part of this program to benefit military families in a special way, visit www.operationdeployyourdress.org.

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