2018-02-14 / Voice at the Shore

Business leaders’ commitment to tikkun olam gives rise to Project Prom

Voice shore editor

RENE KANE RENE KANE Like Cinderella, who couldn’t go to the ball without a gown, high school girls who want to go to prom need to find “the dress.” Yet for many girls in Atlantic County, the cost of the dress—and everything that goes with it—can be well beyond their family’s means.

But not anymore. Thanks to Project Prom, an initiative started by local realtor Rene Kane, any high school girl in Atlantic County, regardless of her financial means, can have the chance to experience prom. Prom dresses and accessories are now being collected at the Margate JCC and several other local businesses. Those dresses and accessories will be given away for free at Kensington Furniture in Northfield, March 24-26.

Although Project Prom is not a Jewish initiative per se, it is an example of Jewish values and community at their best, as well as of how networking among Jewish business leaders can accomplish great things within the community.

MICHAEL GROSSMAN MICHAEL GROSSMAN Kane, a realtor with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices/Fox & Roach in Margate, started Project Prom three years ago when she discovered there was a need. “Leigh Turner (who was then Community Initiatives Coordinator for Jewish Family Service in Margate) posted on Facebook that a few girls needed prom dresses,” Kane recalled.

The plea struck a chord with Kane, who was “always involved in planning and doing” for the Jewish and local community. As an active member of Congregation Beth Judah (now Shirat Hayam), Kane not only managed the gift shop and ran fundraisers; she was also heavily involved in many of the synagogue’s community service projects, including an initiative to collect prom dresses for needy teens from 2005 to 2011. That initiative fell apart when the local business that had volunteered to collect and store the prom dresses closed.

Project Prom founder and local realtor Rene Kane with volunteer crew members at Kensington Furniture in Northfield. Pictured here, from left, are: Boys and Girls Club director Michelle Carrera, Kim Little, Zelda Soloff, Rene Kane, Bobbi Ginsberg, and Janet Kindlick. Project Prom founder and local realtor Rene Kane with volunteer crew members at Kensington Furniture in Northfield. Pictured here, from left, are: Boys and Girls Club director Michelle Carrera, Kim Little, Zelda Soloff, Rene Kane, Bobbi Ginsberg, and Janet Kindlick. Kane decided to restart the initiative as a community effort. She put together a committee, comprised largely of local Jewish women, and reached out to local businessman Leo Schoffer, a former Jewish Federation and Beth Judah president, who had worked with Kane on past Jewish community initiatives.

“I called Leo to see if he had a space [to collect and distribute the dresses], and he put me in touch with Michael Grossman of Kensington Furniture, and that’s how it all came to be,” said Kane.

For Grossman, who runs the enormous, family-owned Kensington Furniture store in Northfield, “It was a no-brainer,” he said. “When Rene calls you up and asks you to do something, you know it’s a worthwhile cause. Rene is a rock star. She’s a dynamic, make-it-happen type of person. Why wouldn’t we do it?”

Holding Project Prom at Kensington, “a 106-year-old business that’s committed to this community,” clearly “made so much sense,” he said.

“We are really looking forward to this year’s Project Prom because of the success of the previous ones,” added Grossman, who said his staff has become enthusiastic supporters of the event. “We are constantly looking for ways to make a bigger impact—to do more to benefit the young ladies.”

Setting up shop at Kensington is a big project, stressed Kane. For three days, the furniture store doubles as a high-end dress shop, with 1,400 dresses on display, along with jewelry and other accessories. A cadre of nearly 100 volunteers does everything from set up to clean up. Some act as personal shoppers and stylists for the girls who come in to “shop.”

“We have one or two volunteers who help the girls find dresses and make a huge fuss over them,” Kane explained. “When the girl finds a dress, we all scream. It is an over-the-top amazing experience for the kids.”

“It’s not just about the dress,” added Kane. “It’s about giving these kids an experience that they wouldn’t normally get when they go to a store,” an experience where they are “respected for who they are” and “fawned over.”

“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” said Kane, who loves seeing the girls shine with happiness and self-confidence after their experience with Project Prom. Kane also gets satisfaction in giving relief to parents who weren’t sure how they’d be able to pay for their daughters to go to prom.

“We have really affected kids,” she added. Kane recalled the story of a young woman who had dropped out of high school who came to Kensington to get a prom dress. This young woman had such a fantastic experience going to prom that she decided to go back to high school.

What happens to Kensington’s business during the three days it doubles as a dress shop? Admittedly, Project Prom “can be a distraction” to the furniture store’s usual shoppers, said Grossman. But “I’m not worried about my business those days,” he added. “I believe in karma. I believe if you do good, it comes back to you.”

That has certainly been true for Kane. “I was concerned when I decided to do this that it would affect my business, because it takes so much time away, but my business has skyrocketed,” said Kane, who supervises a team of realtors that has recently grown from five to seven people. “Maybe that’s because I’m more organized. The busier you are, the more efficient you are.”

Kane, a former stay-at-home mom who got her real estate license in 2002, said that being involved and networking in the Jewish community has had an immeasurable impact on her career.

“I have always been involved. I’ve been on every board and every committee,” she said. “When I was a stay-at-home mom, being on different boards gave me the confidence to know I could accomplish anything. It really empowered me. It also helped me get to know people.”

As a result, when she started out in real estate, she had already gained the trust of many people locally, who knew her as someone with a track record for being successful.

“There’s nothing stronger than networking in the Jewish community. The more involved you are, the more you know who can do what,” she noted. “If you want to get things done, you need to know the right people.”

Kane is currently on the board of Beron Jewish Older Adult Services, as well as a member of the local Jewish Federation’s Jewish Business Network (JBN), which seeks to “connect Jewish business people to each other and their Jewish community, and to foster awareness about local and global causes, issues, and opportunities,” said Kirk Wisemayer, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Atlantic & Cape May Counties.

Kane has recently also joined the board of the Boys and Girls Club of Atlantic City, which is a partner in Project Prom. She originally reached out to the club as a way to connect with girls who needed dresses. (Here again, Jewish community networking came into play: someone Kane had known through JFS was then working for the club.) Now, Kane hopes to get involved in more tikkun olam projects at the Boys and Girls Club centers.

Project Prom is currently collecting dresses at the JCC, Kensington Furniture at 200 Tilton Road in Northfield, and at Kane’s realty office, Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices/Fox & Roach, which is located at 9218 Ventnor Avenue in Margate. Kane also encourages others to collect dresses from friends and neighbors. “One of my past customers in Pennsylvania collects dresses for me,” she noted.

Anyone wishing to help can call Rene Kane at (609) 703- 8592. For more information, visit Project Prom on Facebook. 

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