HILLSIDE, NJ — With prom and graduation season just around the corner, many students are faced with the stress of what has become a major expense.
But Hawaiian Thompson-Epps, a longtime Hillside resident and Hillside Board of Education member, has taken some of the worry out of special occasions for young women throughout the township and beyond.
Eight years ago in East Orange, Epps started the Prom Princess Pop Up Shop, a formal dress boutique, where all items are free of charge. Five years ago she brought the concept to the Hillside community.
The shop is an extension of Systas 4 Systas, a nonprofit, community-based organization founded in East Orange 23 years ago. Systas is an acronym for Supporting Young Sisters Toward Achieving Success and offers workshops and programs that promote educational and social skills to lead young women from urban communities toward success.
Epps is also a member of Hillside’s Recreation Advisory Council, runs Little Scholars for Hillside Pop Warner Football League, spent seven years as the Hillside High School track coach and received the Hillside Recreation Department’s Volunteer Award in 2014.
The Princess Prom Pop Up Shop was originally set up in Epps’ Hillside home, but several years ago, when her inventory grew too large, she moved it to the Hillside Community Center.
“We moved 383 dresses to the recreation center,” Epps told LocalSource in a recent phone interview. “I could not believe how many dresses we had.”
The shop now boasts more than 500 gowns and dresses for every occasion, including socials, proms, banquets and military balls. The store also carries shoes for women and girls, as well as bow ties for teen boys — all free of charge.
Epps said this season at the shop has been busier than ever, with the donations pouring in.
“Last week, Hollywood Bridal donated over 50 gowns,” Epps said. “Each year I like to make it better.”
The shop is decorated as a full-fledged boutique with lounge-style seating, full-length mirrors, and dresses and gowns artfully displayed by Epps and Ember Lofton, her partner in the endeavor.
“In the shop, they’re feeling pretty,” Epps said of her customers. “They get an awesome experience. We give them a lot of time and we’re very patient. I tell them, ‘When you put on this dress, no one’s going to know where this dress is from.’ It’s very, very important that women and girls feel comfortable. It’s hard economically for everybody, so If I can help somebody for one day, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Thankful customers have left notes at the shop, expressing heartfelt gratitude to both Epps and Lofton.
“I would like to thank Systas 4 Systas for my dress,” wrote one customer. “It looks amazing on and I am more than thankful.”
“Thank you for supporting families that are not able to afford gowns for upcoming special events,” wrote another.
One young customer wrote, “Thank you for taking the time out of your day for girls like me. Prom and formal events are so expensive.
“Thank you for giving us young girls the opportunity to make our dream dress fantasy come true. I am, and will always be grateful for this moment.”
According to Epps, donations come from individuals, stores and organizations.
Epps praised Lofton for her dedication to the shop.
“I give her a lot of kudos,” she said. “She has my personality and she believes in the mission.”
Hillside Recreation Director David Klurman told LocalSource that Epps has been a tireless part of the Hillside community and an advocate for its youth.
“Ms. Epps has been living in Hillside for 17 years and has done a lot for the community and started Systas 4 Systas Inc., which has been helping the youth in Hillside Township for eight years,” Klurman said in an April 12 email. “She’s a great gal. She never goes for the glory herself. As recreation director, I do it for people like Hawaiian.”
Klurman also praised Lofton, saying “she goes above and beyond.”
Epps said that she knows her mission in life, and she intends to live by it.
“You have to know your purpose in life,” she said. “My purpose is to help people.”
Gown donations are currently being accepted. Monetary donations can be made by visiting the Systas 4 Systas website at www.s4sinc.org.
For more information about the Prom Princess Pop Up Shop, visit the boutique’s Facebook page.