Can prom dresses change the world? Natalie Piazza thinks they can.

The Cardinal Newman junior, 16, started a Santa Rosa prom boutique for underprivileged girls last year. Piazza conceived the idea after noticing a need among her eighth-grade class in Santa Cruz during preparation for graduation.

"I started thinking, 'how are girls who can't necessarily afford to buy these (dresses) doing it?' " said Piazza.

The idea resurfaced after Piazza's family moved to Sonoma County in 2010 and Piazza began her freshman year at the then-Ursuline High School. At Ursuline, Piazza learned about the school's Community Based Service Learning projects.

"I realized that I could really make a difference," Piazza said. "I thought I would just collect about 100 dresses and then hold a day in the gym for girls to come and get a dress."

She started writing letters to local businesses, and finding 100 dresses turned into receiving 1,000. Her garage quickly ran out of space.

The owner of a warehouse in northwest Santa Rosa heard about Piazza's cause and offered her an unused portion of the building to use until she graduates. An interior designer donated her services, and a shop began to take shape.

Prom Closet opened in April 2012, and since then Piazza has helped nearly 100 girls and women. She runs the shop single-handedly, handling all appointments, managing the website and fundraising efforts.

Some of the girls are referred through school counselors and court-appointed advocates, while many hear about the boutique through word of mouth. All receive a free prom dress and a voucher for discounts at Sheikh Shoes in Santa Rosa Plaza.

"She's superwoman," said Andrew McCormick, whose dentistry office honored Piazza for her efforts during its "Good Deeds" essay contest. "She's a visionary and it's amazing how she has an ability to get something accomplished."

The stories Piazza has heard inspired her to do more. Girls would come in who had never owned a single dress and needed a boost in self-confidence.

"High school is a really weird time in adolescence, and girls have low self-esteem, feel insecure about themselves and have no inner confidence," Piazza said.

Piazza has seen her work help change that. "Girls have told me that they've never felt this beautiful, and that it was the highlight of their lives," she said.

Every story hasn't always been a happy one. Two sisters came in needing dresses for their mother's funeral.

"It was very gratifying to be able to help them in such a time of need," Piazza said. "It wasn't the fun-loving experience for when girls come in for prom, but it was good for me to see and I was all the more thankful."

Piazza draws comparisons to Cardinal Newman senior Allyson Ahlstrom, who has been honored as one of the nation's top teen volunteers for creating Threads for Teens, a Windsor boutique that allows disadvantaged girls to shop for clothes for free.

While originally planning to service dresses for proms, Piazza discovered a need among women of all ages looking for special events dresses.

"We have dresses size double zero to 30, and have helped women age 8 to 88," Piazza said. "We're for all ages and all sizes."

Piazza has supplied dresses for multiple special events, including a group of inner-city girls from Oakland who were invited to attend President Barack Obama's inauguration earlier this year.

Last fall, Piazza saw the Sundance Film Festival selection "Miss Representation," which focused on the objectification of women in the media and their underrepresentation in society.

"There are so many issues with young women stemming from self-esteem, and they're not being encouraged to pursue academic success," Piazza said. "I wanted give them something not only on a tangible level with clothes, but also on an intellectual level."

The film inspired Piazza to begin fundraising for a scholarship program, and she is currently in the process of raising $10,000.

"I wanted to be a role model to say 'yes, you can do these things if that's your dream,' " Piazza said. "You can achieve these things even though other people may not be telling you that you can."

Piazza is preparing for achievements of her own. An avid figure skater, classical pianist and competitive dancer, Piazza plans to attend Stanford in the fall of 2014 to double major in economics and marketing. Eventually, she'd like to attend law school and become a corporate lawyer.

"Her personality is dynamic, she's one of the fireballs who never stops," said John Contreras, who oversees Newman's CBSL program. "She's just an energetic and enthusiastic young woman and anybody around her just recognizes that she'll get the job done."

Piazza plans to turn over the Prom Closet to another Newman senior upon graduation and plans on staying involved with the project.

"Giving these girls dresses wasn't just giving them an article of clothing — it was telling them they were beautiful," Piazza said. "It sounds shallow, but once they learn to feel good about themselves they can be successful and make the right choices in life."

You can reach Staff Writer Melody Karpinski at 521-5205 or melody.karpinski@pressdemocrat.com.