When Tamara Medeiros lost her 16-year-old daughter in a car accident, she found a way to turn something tragic into an opportunity to help others. On March 20, she is inviting members of the community to join her in that effort by attending the Fashion for All Stages of Life fashion show and tea at the Carroll County Career and Technology Center in Westminster.
"Rita was a bright light in any room and was [an] extremely caring person with a heart of gold," Medeiros said. "She was 16 years old when she was in a car accident. We bought her prom dress on a Saturday and the next day, Sunday, she was in a car accident."
Rita did not get to wear her prom gown, but others will attend their proms in beautiful gowns because of Rita's Closet, the organization Medeiros formed in 2012 in Rita's honor. Rita's Closet gives free dresses to those who can't afford them and sells gently used gowns at a discounted price to fund scholarships for students of Westminster High School, which Rita attended, through the Community Foundation of Carroll County. According to Medeiros, three to five students from each high school in the county receive free dresses from Rita's Closet annually.
Medeiros said Rita had purchased her prom dress from Demario Bridal and Formal of Westminster. Within a month of her passing, shop owner Dawn Demario contacted the family with the idea of starting a charity to honor Rita's memory.
Medeiros liked the idea. With help from the Community Foundation of Carroll County, the family formed a nonprofit and immediately began collecting prom dresses. Now they have over 500 dresses.
"We decided that first year to hold a fashion show and tea in 2013," Medeiros said. "Last year I just couldn't pull myself together to do it, but this year we will."
The fashion show features many donated dresses, not only for prom but also dresses for graduation, work, cruises and parties, including sundresses. The evening event will end with bridal and wedding fashions. A small selection of donated dresses from Rita's Closet will also be on display. Many more are available for purchase at AMR Jewelry Boutique, at 10 John Street in Westminster.
In the past, Rita's Closet's biggest challenge has been housing donated dresses. Medeiros said they lost donated storage space for their dresses five or six times in just a few years. Each time, they had to move the dresses — close to 500 of them.
"That is quite a task," she said. "After an article ran this past summer about our dilemma, Ann Marie Rose at AMR Jewelry gave us a space for our dresses. They are assisting us, giving us a place to have dresses dropped off year- round and also selling them at the store."
Victoria Rhoten is the director of sales and marketing for AMR Jewelry Boutique. She said the store had just expanded in early summer with plans to open a dress boutique when Rose saw the article in the Carroll County Times.
"Ann Marie's brother had gone to school with Rita and she thought it was a good idea for us to help," Rhoten said.
So the dresses came to AMR Jewelry on John Street in Westminster.
"We keep AMR Jewelry open year-round so people can donate or purchase reasonable dresses any time of the year," Rhoten said. "A percentage goes to us for our work and the rest goes to them. We pay the rent and overhead. We also consign dresses, but 90 percent of our dresses are for Rita's Closet, and we have purses."
Rhoten said since AMR Jewelry became involved in June, 50 to 60 more dresses have been donated.
"Money raised by selling dresses helps us give a scholarship in Rita's memory," Medeiros said. "They are very nominally priced — anywhere from $35 to $70 — so we can continually add to the scholarship fund. We gave away a scholarship in 2013 and one in 2014 and we will give two this year because we want to give one for a student at the Career and Technology Center, where two of my children graduated."
Rhoten said the fashion show will feature many beautiful dresses. Country View Tuxedos donates tuxedos for the male models and each female model will go down the runway twice in different dresses they have picked out.
"The Career and Technology Center is partnering with us to make this happen," Medeiros said. "Their staff is helping us make this a memorable event."
Tea sandwiches, scones and a variety of desserts, as well as tea, will be provided at the fashion show by the Career and Technology Center's culinary program.
Rita was a triplet and Medeiros said she left behind a sister, Emily, and brother, Alexander, as well as older brother Justin.
"Rita was very popular and involved in many things," Medeiros said. "She danced at The Ballet Slipper [in Westminster] from the time she was 3 years old. She was a twirler for the No Doubt Twirling team and a cheerleader for the Westminster Wildcats. She was in the Westminster High School marching band and was on the Lady Marauders Rugby Team. We would hope that she feels proud."
Medeiros said she appreciates the chance to make a difference in people's lives.
"For me, the greatest part is giving away the dresses," Medeiros said. "I really enjoy seeing how touched the girls are. Last year we had two sisters get dresses. Their mom was going through cancer treatment. We had an opportunity to talk and for me to hear about their struggles. It was a great opportunity for us as a family to see that we are making a difference."
The fashion show and tea will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. March 20 at Carroll County Career and Technology Center, at 1229 Washington Road in Westminster.
Tickets cost $15 or $25 for two or $160 for table of eight. Advanced reservations are required by March 15. For tickets, call 410-861-6287 or email email@example.com.
Event attendees who bring a new or gently used dress will be entered into a special drawing for a gift certificate to AMR Jewelry.
"Everyone deserves a Cinderella moment," said Rhoten. "I feel Rita missed her Cinderella moment, but through the generous dress donations we receive every day, Rita's Closet is able to help others have their Cinderella moment."