The Corsage Project: Helping Graduates Make Lasting Memories

Corsage Project volunteers take a group photo

For students graduating from high school, few events are looked forward to as much as the high school prom. A pivotal experience in a young person’s life, considered by many to be a rite of passage that marks the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. It is a time to celebrate accomplishments, friendships, and memories that will last a lifetime.

The prom experience can also be costly – according to Global News, the price of a prom dress alone could run up to $1,200 in Toronto. In addition to formal attire, there are also additional costs for cosmetics, shoes, and accessories. It’s an expensive experience that can be out of reach for many teenagers. Enter the Corsage Project—a non-profit program working in partnership with Children’s Aid Foundation of Canada, that provides female-identifying secondary students in the Greater Toronto Area with all the glitz and glamour of the prom celebration.

We recently sat down with Joanne Sallay – Volunteer Chair of the Corsage Project, CEO of Teachers on Call, and one of Canada’s Most Powerful Women recognized in the 2023 WXN Top 100 Awards. Joanne is also the daughter of co-founder, Rhona Sallay. In our interview we share more about the Corsage Project, why it’s important, and the ripple effect of its impact on young people.

Q: Tell us about the Corsage Project – what is it and how did it come about?

Joanne: The Corsage Project levels the playing field for financially deserving students to celebrate their high school graduation with pride and in style at prom and convocation celebrations. Through our annual event, the ‘Boutique Ball’, the Corsage Project provides an authentic shopping experience with brand new formal attire and accessories provided to keep free of charge.

My mother, Rhona Sallay, co-founded the Corsage Project with her friend and former colleague, Carole Atkins. Working as educators with at-risk youth, they saw firsthand the evolution of prom from a simple celebration of an important milestone to a costly event that placed unnecessary financial pressure on students – many who were working hard at school and at part-time jobs to help support their families.

Throughout the years they built a dedicated volunteer executive team who generously share their professional expertise from a variety of industries as well as their time. Since our start in 1999, we have proudly helped thousands of students involved with the child welfare system and with financial need by removing barriers associated with the prom experience.

Two women pose in front of a backdrop

Q: Tell us about your partnership with Children’s Aid Foundation of Canada – how did that come about?

Joanne: The Children’s Aid Foundation of Canada has been our partner since day one and was instrumental in helping us get it off the ground. The Executive Director at the time, Sheilagh Johnson, believed in our vision and provided advice, support and resources to help us get started. The Corsage Project has always involved the community. What began with dress drives and household donations, grew to small boutiques and large retailers providing free dresses, jewellery, and accessories.  We are proud of our longstanding partnership with the Children’s Aid Foundation of Canada, united in our common goal to build better futures for youth in need.

Q: In addition to providing resources for prom, the Corsage Project also gives out awards each year, including a scholarship through Children’s Aid Foundation of Canada. Tell us more about that.

Joanne: Not only does the Corsage Project deliver life-changing experiences through the Boutique Ball, we also invest in education, one of the most effective ways for young people to turn the trajectory of their lives. In my professional career, I’m the leader of a Canadian tutoring service for elementary and high school students, so I feel passionately about supporting the continuation of learning. Through corporate and personal donations, we provide community award bursaries and an annual scholarship in partnership with Children’s Aid Foundation of Canada that’s presented at Stand Up for Kids Night. The Corsage Project also has an annual program to sponsor the Native Learning Centre’s graduation luncheon for graduating students in Toronto. We’ve helped many young people continue with their studies at college and university to thrive as adults who contribute to society at large.

A student tries on earrings dressed in a gown

Q: What is the impact of the Corsage Project? Why is it important to support such efforts?

Joanne: The Corsage Project helps make prom dreams possible despite prom-flation to increase self-confidence and level the playing field for participating students. This is accomplished through the contribution of time through volunteer efforts, as well as in-kind and financial donations. Our impact is seen first-hand at our Boutique Ball, as participants arrive looking reserved, not knowing what to expect, and leave with the widest smiles on their faces. They are made to feel special with the knowledge that their community cares about them, and they feel inspired to pay it forward. Many student participants return in future years to volunteer at our event. Volunteers are often inspired to give back to their local communities further, with notable supporters starting successful prom projects of their own outside of Ontario.

Two students pose in front of a backdrop

Q: How can people support the Corsage Project?

Joanne: The Corsage Project is possible thanks to countless volunteers, donors, and retail sponsors who believe in what we do. On the volunteer front, we’re fortunate to have community members (including student volunteers) help with set-up the day before. At the Boutique Ball, we welcome adult volunteers (18 years of age and older to ensure privacy and confidentiality for our student participants) in the roles of personal shoppers and station attendants. Corporate volunteer teams are heavily involved, with a special shout-out to Team RBC whose employees generously volunteer their time as well as funds. We are immensely grateful to our retail partners who provide us with brand new dresses, like longstanding supporter Madeline’s Boutique. New sponsors come on board annually, and this year Urban Spa has donated hair transformation kits for all participants and volunteer swag bags.

Going forward there are several ways to become involved. Areas where we could benefit from additional support include retail donations or gift cards for new purses and shoes, monetary donations to go towards our scholarship and bursary program as well as operating costs. The contribution of time to volunteer at our signature event or on a committee throughout the year. Or simply by following our journey on social media to provide encouragement and support!

The Corsage Project’s Boutique Ball takes place on May 4, 2024. Want to support financially deserving students? Join the volunteer team or make a donation.

Photo credit: Jennifer Allison from JShutter Photography.