Celebrating graduates in support of Dress for Success

Grade 8 graduate Grace Devarennes wanted the opportunity to wear her dress and mark her graduation, so local photographer Melissa Howlett came up with a plan. Howlett is now offering graduate portrait sessions by dontation to local charity Dress for Success. Photo by Melissa Howlett.

For many young Kingstonians, the school year is coming to an end without much ado, but for those that are graduating, that means missing out on some of the important milestones that create lifelong memories.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many graduation celebrations have been cancelled, leaving graduates without the typical celebration that comes along with the momentous occasion. When faced with this realization, local photographer Melissa Howlett of Dust and Breath Photography was moved to create a project that would help celebrate these graduates, and support a local not-for-profit. As fate would have it, Howlett just happened to be working with a local charity that was the perfect fit for this concept prior to the pandemic.

Before everything had closed down due to the State of Emergency caused by the pandemic, Howlett had been working with Dress for Success, a local not-for-profit that strives to “empower women to achieve economic independence by providing a network of support, professional attire, and the development tools to help women thrive in work and in life.” However, the fundraising project Howlett was working on with Dress for Success had to be halted due to the pandemic, as it was an in-person event.

In an attempt to continue working in her creative field, Howlett reached out to former clients who own a horse, asking if they would be interested in doing some portrait work featuring the family and their horse. Unfortunately, that wasn’t able to happen, as the barn where the horse stays was closed to the public due to COVID-19, as well.

But then, the client’s daughter, Grace Devarennes, asked a question that took Howlett by surprise, pulling at her heartstrings as she reflected on her own Grade 8 graduation.

“Grace, said ‘Do you think Melissa would take my picture in my grade 8 graduation dress?’” Howlett recalled. “Just the way she phrased it brought backthe tender heart that I had when I was her age about wanting to kind of play dress up and be beautiful and be celebrated. So as soon as they asked, I said ‘Absolutely!’”

Howlett then was struck by the way this idea mirrored the mission of Dress for Success – the idea of building someone up by allowing them to look their best and be celebrated.

“Something just clicked in my brain, and I was like ‘Oh my goodness! This could be a great way to celebrate graduates and also raise some funds for Dress for Success!’ Because I know that a lot of their fundraising initiatives have been put on the back burner because most of them are event-based,” Howlett expressed. “My heart, with the business that I run, with the art that I create, is to show people that they are special and one of a kind, and I think this whole initiative dovetails really nicely with that because we’re not able to participate in rituals that tell us that we’re special and one of a kind, and so this is how I can use the art that I make to kind of fill in the gaps.

“I mean, I remember my Grade 8 graduation and I was all about that dress. I wanted to wear that dress badly!” she said with a laugh.

With that, Howlett did a session with Grace, allowing her to wear the dress she’d dreamed of wearing and getting all the finishing touches in hair and makeup just as she’d wanted. The photos Howlett captured will undoubtedly be keepsakes for Grace and her family for years to come.

Grade 8 graduate Grace Devarennes as photographed by Melissa Howlett.

And now, Howlett is offering that opportunity to graduates throughout Kingston and the area. Howlett is offering 15 minute photo sessions, which can be booked through her blog site here. Once a student or parent has booked an appointment, Howlett follows up with the photo shoot location. All the graduate has to do is show up in whatever outfit they desire (and as much or as little attention to hair and makeup as they wish), and meet at the location at the pre-arranged time. Howlett then asks the client to make a donation to Dress for Success here. She is suggesting a donation of $50 or more per person. The client will receive about a dozen images from the session in the weeks that follow.

On top of the synergy between the project and Dress for Success, Howlett said her photography style already lends itself to physical distancing, so that won’t be an issue for the photo shoots.

“Fortunately for me, my photographic style is actually just naturally social distanced. I use a very long lens and I always photograph in wide, open spaces. I like big fields and large vistas and that kind of thing, so I never more than even eight to 10 feet away from my clients, anyway, COVID or not. So it is a very safe thing to do,” she said, noting that, while her initial idea was to do the photo sessions for Grade 8 graduates, she is also open to doing them for high school graduates, as well.

“I feel like it’s a win-win for everybody: I get to get out there and be creative and meet new people, and the organization is a wonderful organization who will hopefully benefit,” Howlett said. “And these kids: They’ve worked hard, they deserve to be celebrated!”

Howlett has two dates available for graduates to book the 15 minute sessions: Monday, Jun. 29 and Sunday, Jul. 5, 2020. For more information on the portrait sessions by donation to Dress for Success, click here.

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