For Erica Pienaar, the Princess Project is not a part time hobby she does every now and then, but a full-time passion she inserts between her full-time job as a medical consultant and being a single mother of two growing boys.
She’s one incredible human being.
Growing up herself without the luxuries many of us take for granted, all she and her late best friend wanted, was to be able to go to their high school graduation party (matric farewell) in a pretty outfit, and to feel like a princess – just for once.
Remembering this feeling, one day 16 years ago, the Princess Project was born, to help others, who like them, have to face not attending their own end of school celebrations because they cannot afford to look the part.
Over the years, the project has clothed many thousands of young school leavers who have been unable to purchase or hire their own celebration dresses, and now has 32 branches around the country, four of them in Cape Town - two in Mitchell’s Plain, one in Hanover Park, another in Delft and one from Erica’s own home in Durbanville.
Further spreading the love, Capegate Shopping Centre recently came on board to act as a repository for dress donations, collecting 175 dresses over a three-month period. These were handed over to the Princess Project recently, together with donations of evening shoes, handbags, and even jewellery.
Zoë Ganz, Capegate’s Marketing Manager is excited about the partnership, saying: “The project has been so well received by our shoppers, in fact, people have come from all over Cape Town to drop off gowns and accessories. There are so many beautiful pieces and each one of them has a beautiful story to go with it, so much so that we are happy to continue to receive donations throughout the year so we can keep making other young women’s dreams a reality.”
“It has been a privilege to be part of this initiative and I would like to thank everyone for their selfless contributions. This is part of our pay it forward approach to our business and we couldn’t have asked for a better and more deserving cause than to partner with Erica and the Princess Project, especially as Women’s Month is around the corner. We hope to expand on this in years to come too…watch this space.”
Pienaar explains how the Princess Project works, “90 percent of the kids we help, from across all races and geographical areas, have severe financial difficulties and because their families struggle to pay for food, they cannot even contemplate buying a dress, so they end up not going at all. Because of these donations, they now get to come in and choose what they want and it’s all for free. We do this on a handshake and a trust basis, which adds to the value of the experience for these young people.”
The garments are then returned, having had another extraordinary layer to their travelling story added, and are then readied for their next chapter.
The Fit in Culture
One such beneficiary whose dream will become a reality in September when she attends her own Matric farewell, is 18-year-old Refilwe Nchupetsand, along with her mother, Elizabeth, who are some of the recipients of Capegate and the Princess Project’s largesse.
The Sibelius High School student was present on the day of the handover at Capegate. She says that there is a lot of peer pressure on young people to “fit in” and be part of the crowd. Social media puts significant stress on kids to outdo each other, and because poverty is a real thing for many, there are many who just do not go to their own rite of passage celebrations – because we can’t.
Nchupetsand was full of praise for Capegate and the Princess Project. “For me it is an honour to be wearing a dress that someone or many ‘someones’ before me have worn. It feels good and is empowering knowing that others felt beautiful and special in it, and I am very happy to be wearing it and adding my chapter to the ones before me. For the first time, I actually feel excited about the prospect of being able to attend my farewell.
“I have friends who are in the same position as I am, who were equally as discouraged as I was before I met the Princess Project, and thanks to Capegate’s involvement, they too have a chance at dressing up for the occasion.”
No story of this nature would be complete without the mother of the matriculant having a say in the matter, and Elizabeth Nchupetsand was both overjoyed and tearful seeing her daughter dressed up and glowing. “I remember when we were growing up how we also had to share everything but back then, it wasn’t like now, when it’s all about the weave and looking like a celebrity. I am so excited to be able to give Refilwe this opportunity, it is so overwhelming as now I can make my daughter’s dreams come true.
“I see so many parents putting themselves into debt because of this desire to give our kids the opportunity to look the part, but we don’t need to as there is another way, and one that has much more meaning.”
Under the glamour it is not always a pretty picture, but thanks to the generosity of spirit of all involved, there are yet more young people who will have the chance to shine and pay that dream forward.
The Princess Project will disburse the Capegate donations amongst its branches in the Cape metropole as well as locations in Onrus and in Beaufort West.
With an increasing demand, the last word goes to Capegate and Erica Pienaar who jointly encourage everyone to detox their cupboards, particularly as the request for menswear is growing too.
Donations can be dropped at Capegate at the centre management office, marked for the attention of Laurianna Carelse, whose fabulous idea it was to activate the project on behalf of the shopping centre. Capegate is keeping donations open until the end of August (Women’s Month), but will re-open the donation drive again in 2023, starting in Autumn.