RIPON -- A few months ago, gripped by grief, Melinda Shaw decided she'd create a lasting memory of the daughter who died so tragically last year.
Before 17-year- old Marissa McLeod took her own life Dec. 1, the Ripon High senior had begun collecting dresses for winter formals and proms, to give to girls who otherwise could not afford them.
Shaw decided to continue with her daughter's work through "Marissa's Closet." In February, with help from family members and friends, Shaw set what at the time seemed like an overly ambitious goal: collecting and distributing 700 dresses.
What's happened since has been nothing short of amazing, buoyed by media coverage and the Internet.
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Collect 700 dresses? They've gathered more than 3,200.
Distribute 700 dresses? Shaw and her all-volunteer crew have given out more than 1,000, with more proms to come and 1,600 more dresses on the racks ready to go in the former Ripon Drug Store building downtown.
And in doing so, Shaw discovered that with each girl comes a story or circumstance, such as one girl born with a rare genetic disorder. Her ongoing medical bills made it difficult for her family to afford a store-bought dress for her prom. Shaw got an e-mail from the girl's mom, asking if a free dress might be available.
"I e-mailed her back and said, 'Come into the store and we'll make her feel like a queen,' " Shaw said.
"That would be so awesome," the mom replied. "Where are you located? We live in Kansas."
Hmmm ... .
They e-mailed back and forth, with the mom describing the size and what kind of dress her daughter wanted -- preferably something red or hot pink.
A few days later, the kind of dress the girl coveted arrived. Shaw found a donor to pay shipping costs and sent it to Pleasanton, a town of about 1,400 residents near the Kansas-Missouri border. Unfortunately, the girl's illness flared up at the last moment, preventing her from attending her prom.
Closer to home, Jen Brunell of Vallejo is raising the daughters of her best friend who died. Brunell couldn't afford to buy prom dresses for all three girls. Then, another friend told her about Marissa's Closet. Brunell brought to Ripon the girls and two of their friends, including a child whose foster parents refused to buy her a prom dress and a girl whose family is on welfare.
"I loaded up the girls and came over," she said. "They all found dresses. It was amazing. (Shaw) treated them all like princesses. It made a difference in all the girls."
When they got back home to Vallejo, they began collecting dresses to donate to Marissa's Closet, and they'll be bringing them over soon.
"I like what it brought out in the girls," Brunell said. "I like the spirit it brought out in them."
Girls from Sacramento, Merced, the Livermore Valley and even Daly City near San Francisco came to Ripon and found their prom dresses -- free -- at Marissa's Closet, Shaw said.
She and staff also shipped 600 dresses overseas through an organization called Assist International. The dresses will be used to help women in developing countries create their own stores as a way of supporting themselves.
Shaw is staging a dinner- dance Friday night to raise money to help pay for prom tickets for those who can't afford them, along with other expenses. She makes presentations to local service clubs, asking them for help. She's providing dresses for "An Evening of Dreams," a formal event in Sacramento on May 14 for teens and young adults with disabilities and illnesses.
None of this makes Marissa's death any easier to accept, but Shaw finds the effort therapeutic because it keeps her so busy.
"I've suppressed all of my feelings," Shaw said. "I don't deal with it that she's not here. She's here with me. I have my meltdowns. But (Marissa's Closet is) why I get out of bed. It's why I can sit here and tell you this is what I'm going to do."
Ultimately, Shaw wants to create Marissa's Closet chapters in every state. She wants to find a permanent home in Ripon for her store, since the Ripon Drug Store building could be leased or sold to a paying customer.
And she wants to someday create Marissa's House, a place where teens who are contemplating suicide can go for counseling and support. Marissa's death came just a month and a day after another Ripon High student committed suicide.
"There's nowhere for kids to go and not be judged," Shaw said.
In the meantime, she'll keep building the dress crusade her daughter began a year ago.
Indeed, every girl who visits Marissa's Closet has a story or circumstance. And being able to help them helps ease a mother's pain.
For information about Friday night's dinner-dance fund-raiser, visit www.marissascloset.org and click on "Upcoming Events."
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2383.