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Q&A: Cassandra Jones-McBryde on Lifting Up Detroit Youth

When there is a need, Detroiters step up and fill it.

Whether it is hunger (Forgotten Harvest), homelessness (Detroit Central City) or financial strife (SAFE), it seems like there are always people ready to help another Detroiter. Some big cities may brag about how unaffected their residents are by one another; I'd argue Detroit can brag about how much we watch out for each other.

Meet Stephanie Penn-Danforth and Cassandra Jones-McBryde. They are the co-founders of the Pretty Girl Project, a non-profit organization that empowers girls ages 12-17 to embrace their inner and outer beauty.

Next week, the two will host their second event aimed at Detroit youth, helping them prepare themselves for not only one of their biggest nights as a teen – prom – but for presenting themselves to the world as soon-to-be high-school graduates.

Through their friends and industry connections, Penn-Danforth and Jones-McBryde collected nearly 300 dresses for Detroit-area girls. The goal was to help these young women attend their prom when their families otherwise could not afford to do it. In fact, they collected so many dresses, shoes and accessories that they need more girls to sign up for the free event, which features information on etiquette, ballroom-style dancing, hair and age-appropriate makeup application.

For background: Penn-Danforth is a graduate of Detroit Public Schools and editor of Daily Venus Diva, a plus-size eMagazine. Jones-McBryde is co-owner of The Fuller Woman Inc. and U.S. Director of the International Fuller Woman Expo. So both women know something about fashion, women's psyches and beauty.

Jones-McBryde took a few minutes to chat with me about the project, prom and how much love she has for Detroit.

Q: What kind of response have you had to your prom project?
A: I'd go into work and find an email from someone saying they had 20 dresses for us and I'd have to go and hide to cry. The response has been overwhelming. We have received close to 300 dresses from people across the country who want to assist girls in the Detroit area. We are now in a unique position to gift to more girls than we ever dreamed we could. … These are beautiful dresses; we've even got some couture ones like Vera Wang. We have some really high-profile designers who specially made dresses or donated some from their personal collections. So they really are something these girls can be proud of. We also have more than 30 volunteers who will act as the girls' personal stylists that day.

Q: Why focus on the prom?
A: It's so overlooked. That dress, that dance, that day may not seem important when you look at the whole scheme of a family trying to survive. But we know that it is one of the most important days in a young woman's life. … We've focused on high schools like the Catherine Ferguson Academy, where teens are learning to be parents and raising children. The counselors there told us these girls already feel out of place because of their situation. They want to be a part of this high-school experience. … We've gotten (volunteers and donations) from women who told us they were unable to go to prom, and they wanted to see other girls get to fulfill their dreams.

Q: What is the goal for the event?
A: We want to teach these girls to feel good about themselves. It's about loving yourself and knowing your value. Everyone deserves to feel beautiful for at least one day. You get to dress up like you want and to feel like a princess. But it is about more than that; it also is a celebration of who they are. These are teen moms, teens living in shelters. They are going to be graduating seniors and that should be celebrated. That says a lot about them and their strengths.

Q: What is your takeaway about Detroit and the support this city has based on what you've seen so far?
A: We take care of the people we live around. We support one another. (As a businesswoman), I want to make Detroit a focus for business, to bring other businesses here. We want people to know Detroit is the place to be and they should make the pilgrimage here. We just need to get them here and then we've got the rest.

The event runs from 1-6 p.m. Saturday, April 24, at Focus: HOPE's Center for Advanced Technologies in Detroit. For more information, go to the Pretty Girl Project web site.

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