September has long been thought of as back-to-school month, but a couple of Washington State moms are already making big plans for graduation day next June. That’s because the nonprofit they started up just two years ago, Gowns for Grads, now serves students across seven school districts in the South Puget Sound region.
Mekka Robinson, spokesperson for the nonprofit organization, said it all started with a simple realization. As moms of teens, these women had regular interactions with their kids’ friends. But when they learned that some of those teens weren’t planning to go through the graduation ceremony at the end of their senior year, even though they fully expected to complete their coursework, these moms wanted to know why.
It many cases, it turned out that the costs of graduation – caps, gowns, regalia, keepsakes, photos – had simply become too prohibitive for some folks. And in other situations, unpaid fines that extended as far back as middle school were standing in the way of students receiving their diploma.
“Sometimes a $15 fee can seem insurmountable to some families,” Robinson said.
These moms just didn’t think that it was right to deny a graduating high school senior access to his class graduation ceremony.
What began as a conversation in July of 2021 led to incorporation as a nonprofit by the end of that year, and in the Spring of 2022, Gowns for Grads was purchasing caps and gowns for the kids who needed that assistance in the Auburn School District, south of Seattle.
Through word of mouth – “student to student, parent to parent” – news began to spread about the service Gowns for Grads was providing.
The organization began making more formal connections, too, talking with school officials and appearing at back-to-school nights for families. Soon they were able to identify unaccompanied minors, homeless kids, students enrolled in free- and reduced-cost lunch programs, even children in military families – whose parents just didn’t have money to spare for the “extras” like graduation costs.
Or senior photos.
Or senior prom.
Or sanctioned grad night celebrations, that keep students safe and sober.
The moms behind Gowns for Grads had faced some of those barriers themselves when they were finishing up high school, so they knew how it felt to be excluded from some of those special moments that signal the end of childhood and usher students into adult life.
“We didn’t even think about being qualified,” Robinson said. “We just knew it had to be done. If not us, then who – right?”
So Gowns for Grads has expanded in both size and scope over the past two years.
“We want students to achieve and succeed and be excited,” Robinson said. “And I would have to add that working with parents has been amazing, too – to see their joy and excitement.”
This past June, Gowns for Grads served almost a hundred graduating seniors, and sponsored a photo event that was open to all seniors in the area and their families. The festive event removed any sense of stigma and simply let families enjoy their children’s achievements.
“This one dad came in and was really in a bad mood,” Robinson recalled. “He said, ‘So how much is this going to cost me, this photo thing?’”
“And when we said ‘nothing,’” Robinson continued, they saw his worries slip away.
In future, Gowns for Grads hopes to expand further in order to be able to serve students throughout Washington State, and ultimately to supply guidance like applying for college and learning other skill sets.
But to do that, they need more donations, more volunteers, and more time. If anyone reading this article has any of that to spare, contact Gowns for Grads.