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Janet Reefer, left, is assisted by her daughters Nicole Reefer, center, and Courtney Winder as they sort dresses collected by the nonprofit organization, the Sandra Lee Foundation.

SHARPSVILLE — As she was growing up, Janet Reefer didn’t need to worry about dresses, costumes, or other pieces of clothing, because her mother, Sandra Lee Greggs, made everything herself.

“She was a seamstress,” Janet said of her mother. “Majorette costumes, prom dresses — she could do it all.”

Whether it was sewing clothes for her own family or family friends, Sandra’s work was a labor of love — so much so that she often charged very little or nothing at all.

“Stacks” of un-cashed checks that were found in recent years among Sandra’s personal belongings further attest to her mother’s generosity.

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These are just some of the roughly 2,000 dresses collected by the Sandra Lee Foundation, an organization that provides students with dresses, suits and other articles of clothing in honor of the late Sandra Lee Greggs. The goal is to make sure no one misses the memories of a prom or homecoming just because their family can’t afford it.

“If she knew someone needed it, she did it for free,” Janet said of her mother.

When Sandra passed away in 2017, Janet said she needed a way to channel her grief, but couldn’t figure out exactly what to do at first.

The inspiration she needed later came in 2018, while Janet was driving to Baltimore, Md. During the drive, a radio program discussed the importance of being a blessing to others, and even asked, “Do you have dresses someone else could use?”

Janet immediately got to work organizing what would become the Sandra Lee Foundation — a nonprofit organization that would both honor her mother’s memory while helping students who need a fancy dress or suit.

“As parents, kids expect us to provide what they need or want, so if parents bring us their kids, we want the kids to walk out with everything except a ticket,” Janet said.

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Janet Reefer, left, is assisted by her daughters Courtney Winder, center, and Nicole Reefer as they sort dresses for the nonprofit organization, the Sandra Lee Foundation.

The foundation’s first event, a homecoming in 2018, first event collected about 250 to 275 dresses for local girls in need. The organization has continued to grow ever since then, dressing about 1,000 students over the years, Janet said.

“For some of these girls, it’s the first time they’ve ever picked out a dress,” Janet said.

During distributions, Janet said she and the other volunteers try to arrange the dresses like a department store, giving students the chance to “shop” around and try on a few dresses.

“Some of these dresses have only been worn for three to four hours, and many of them are brand new, so some girls will take 20 dresses to try out before they pick one,” Janet said. “It’s a lot of fun to watch the girls pick something out, because some have never had the chance to go to a place like The Winner.”

Aside from dresses, the foundation started collecting suites and other articles of clothing for men in 2019. Later, when Janet’s father Paul Allen Greggs passed away, the men’s section was named “Paul Allen’s Closet” in honor of him, Janet said.

Other items students may need, such as shoes or pieces of jewelry, are also collected.

Part of the challenge for families is how expensive clothing for homecoming or prom can be. A bracelet could be $30 to $40, while dresses could be at least a few hundred dollars — only to be worn for a few hours, Janet said.

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Janet Reefer, center, is joined by her daughters Courtney Winder, left, and Nicole Reefer, right, who assist Janet with the Sandra Lee Foundation, a nonprofit organization named in honor of Janet’s mother which provides dresses, suits and other articles of clothing for students.

That’s why, for families who are struggling financially, getting nice clothes for a school event can be difficult when compared to paying for other costs of living.

“When you’re a kid, going to prom or homecoming is a big deal at that age and you create a lot of memories,” Janet said. “I don’t want any kid to miss something because their family couldn’t afford it.”

Compared to their first giveaway in 2018, the foundation’s latest prom giveaway featured about 2,000 prom gowns.

The majority of the clothes collected and distributed by the Sandra Lee Foundation are donated, from friends to community members to businesses that close.

In one instance, the Greenville business Cobwebs and Couture closed in 2022, and the owners donated about 850 dresses to the foundation, Janet said.

To store all of these clothes, the foundation originally used a location in the downtown plaza in Sharpsville but eventually had to move the clothes to a shipping container in Sharpsville and space at Janet’s job, which allowed her to use a room to store dresses.

For distributions, the foundation has relied on St. Bartholomew Church in Sharpsville, where a friend of Janet’s, Rosemary Ferguson, operates the food pantry and offered a space for the foundation to host their giveaways.

Among the volunteers helping Janet are her two adult daughters, Courtney Winder and Nicole Reefer, who have gotten transportation, setting up the racks and arranging the dresses down to a science.

“That first year, I think it took us about 15 hours to set up, but now it only takes us about five or six hours,” Janet said.

Although Janet’s children graduated from Sharpsville schools and she still lives in the borough, Janet said there are no preconditions for students who need a dress or suit, and families have come from across Mercer County and as far away as Erie to the foundation’s giveaways over the years.

VIDEO: Janet Reefer, Sandra Lee Foundation executive director, helps young men and women afford formal dress attire for special occasions. 

Many students seem surprised at the sheer variety available, while parents are always grateful and sometimes brought to tears by the foundation’s generosity.

“One year I had a dad message me the night before and ask, ‘are you still doing this?’ Then he drove his daughter and her friends all the way through the snow from Latrobe to get dresses,” Janet said.

For anyone who would like to volunteer with the foundation or make a donation, or reach out because they’re in need, more information can be found on the group’s Facebook page, “The Sandra Lee Foundation Formal Dress Giveaway” and website, www.sandraleefoundation.com.

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Like David L. Dye on Facebook or email him at ddye@sharonherald.com.

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