What started as a small idea among friends has now touched the lives of thousands from the military community.
Operation Deploy Your Dress is set to open its newest location in August 2019 at Fort Carson, Colorado, in partnership with the Mountain Post Spouses Club. It marks the seventh shop for the organization since its founding in 2015. Yvonne Coombes, cofounder, says the group has now distributed almost 10,000 dresses around the U.S.
An idea comes to life
Originally designed to be a solo event, ODYD started as “a happy accident” at Fort Bliss, Texas, four years ago, Coombes explains. A small group of military spouses came up with the idea to host a dress swap for local units. After sharing the concept during a Fox News appearance, the women received over 3,000 dress donations from around the country. It quickly became apparent that this had the potential to be much more than a one- or two-day event isolated to their duty station.
“When I was moving, we thought let’s see if this can branch out someplace else,” Coombes, an Army wife of nearly 19 years, said. “We didn’t know if it was just lightning in a bottle at Fort Bliss or if it was really something that was going to work elsewhere. We knew that the need was not unique to Fort Bliss and that the desire for the American population to have a tangible way to support the troops was not unique to just them sending them [dresses] to Fort Bliss, but we just didn’t know if it would work at another installation.”
It did work. The Coombes family received PCS orders to Fort Eustis, Virginia, and the location offered a new opportunity — expansion to include other service branches.
“Fort Eustis was a sweet little post. … it was the perfect fit for our first branch out because it was a little bit slower paced so we could feel it out, the spouses’ club was so warm and welcoming and easy to work with … and the beauty of that location was that there was an Air Force base and a naval installation within striking distance,” she explained.
She added that the second location allowed the group to become more of a purple organization, which continues to be a main focus of ODYD as it expands.
Every dress tells a story
Throughout the years, the stories emerging from the donated gowns — and fitting themselves — have taken on a new meaning, too. In fact, some of the shops display letters sharing the story of the dress or messages of gratitude to its new owner.
“Those letters have been coming from the very beginning. We are always touched when someone takes the time to share the history of the dress or how they heard about our organization,” Coombes said.
Cofounder Liz Mckenrick of Fort Knox, Kentucky, displayed a vintage pink gown that the organizers received for a popup event at the Association of United States Army headquarters earlier this year. It included a letter stating the dress was worn in the 1960s.
Mckenrick also shared poignant moments from the event involving two attendees.
“This room today has had two individuals in tears because they couldn’t find a dress, so we started bringing in hundreds of dresses to do an individual fitting for them. One of them was a female soldier who had a TBI and she had a panic attack when she walked in, and we saw that … and we just brought in about 50 dresses for her to choose from and she found something gorgeous. And we had a brand-new mom that was feeling bad about herself and she kind of broke down in tears,” she said. “The unexpected — that’s what it’s all about, is those moments. That’s the payback.”
Joining forces for military spouses
The organization’s relationship with AUSA has eased some of the financial burdens the founders faced in self-funding the entire operation. Patty Barron, director of the family readiness directorate at AUSA, says they will be supporting additional events in the future but the real value is in the connections being made.
“We connect the local chapter to the local shop so now, when we leave, there’s a relationship built there and they can brainstorm new ideas for military spouses. It’s all about providing opportunities for our military families, our Army families to connect and be informed,” Barron said.
Barron, a longtime Army wife herself, says events like this are key for building those vital human interactions between spouses.
“I lived the life and my daughter now is a military spouse and knowing and understanding that you have to have physical connections with people — it’s not just about social media, it’s not just about a flyer in the wall. This provides us an opportunity to have those in person connections,” she said.
Pomp and circumstance
As natural as building bonds are to the military life experience, so is partaking in tradition. Whether it’s the annual celebration of the service branches or unit-specific events, like a dining in, being part of the long held traditions are a vital component of cohesion and camaraderie for the community. The cost of “doing it right” can be hefty, though, when factoring in cost of attire, childcare, transportation, lodging and more.
That’s one of the key pillars of ODYD’s work. The donated items, which have expanded to include men’s clothing and accessories, alleviates some of the financial burden.
“For me personally, we started this to help the junior soldiers and their family members get to the ball and what we’ve learned is it’s across all ranks — financial issues,” Coombes said. “We want to make sure there’s no stigma to getting a dress from us. It’s really become a community, not just ‘I got a free dress.’”
She has watched as friendships develop between team members, shop volunteers and patrons.
“We almost helped 10,000 families; we never even though we would help 200 families. We love that it’s not just gotten people out to the balls, but it’s also gotten spouses out of their house to volunteer, making connections with the shoppers,” she shared.
Operation Deploy Your Dress has ongoing needs to gown donations, volunteers and spreading the word. Visit its website to learn more about events and opportunities.Read comments