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."