By Derby Carlson
The Order of the Gown sent out an email on August 19 with the subject of: Gown Relief Fund Application. The email shared little information about what the Gown Relief Fund entails, or what caused the OG to create it, but the program is part of a longer effort at the University to make gowns more accessible to all. For new leaders in the Order of the Gown, this is not just another initiative, but a passion project.
“One of the main things I ever heard is that gowns were incredibly expensive… unnecessarily expensive at 140 dollars,” said Alexis McKnight (C’22), the current Order of the Gown President. “I decided that this was something I would like to change.”
When McKnight ran for Order of the Gown President, she made gown availability and affordability a key platform in her bid for President. When she began to run on that specific campaign, Ben Hatfield (C’23) –who later became one of the Order of the Gown parliamentarians–contacted her.
“Before I got elected, he reached out to me and said, ‘This is my favorite thing about your campaign’,” said McKnight.
McKnight and Hatfield are a part of the committee for the Gown Affordability Fund, which also includes OG Secretary Peggy Owusu-Ansah (C’23), and Community Outreach Coordinator Morgan Jennings (C’20), and Student Organization and Leadership Coordinator Sam Young. The committee also works in consultation with the University’s Financial Aid Office. However, Hatfield had a special interest in this project.
“I know for me, when my gowning came around, it was prohibitively expensive. The only reason why I got mine is because I got help,” said Hatfield. “ The Gown Relief Fund is the thing I am most passionate about. It’s my passion project.”
Before the end of the semester, McKnight reached out to Susan Askew about this idea and asked her advice on who to contact for fundraising. During the summer, both McKnight and Hatfield worked with two staff members, Whitney Franklin and Robert Black, in the Office of Advancement to raise money for the fund.
“Alexis and I were very enthusiastic, but they were even more enthusiastic than us,” said Hatfield. “It made me really happy. It was a very inspiring interaction.”
The four worked together and decided on a goal for the fund to reach by June: ten thousand dollars. Alumnus James Murfee (C’73) promised to match every dollar up to five thousand dollars. The fund currently has five thousand dollars in it. The fund is currently closed to donations, but they will probably have annual initiatives during Homecoming weekend.
“My goal is to make all gowns free,” said McKnight.
When applying for the Gown Relief Fund, people can apply for 25, 50, 75, or 100 percent relief.
“What I care about is getting everybody a gown that wants one and making the Order of the Gown more valued,” said Hatfield when discussing his own goals. “Bringing value to the Order of the Gown brings value to your life. That’s my philosophy right now.”
The Order of the Gown has been working on how the process of purchasing the gowns would work, and how to best use the money that the donors gave the fund. They at first planned on creating an account for the fund, but then discovered an account created back in 2013.
“I think that’s where the Gown Library came from,” said Hatfield. “They were trying to keep upscaling it, but then the brakes got pressed for some reason. So, we are starting again, and we are able to build something from 2013.”
One of the other goals of this project is to have a Gown Library that is reputable enough so most students will want to donate their gowns to the library when they graduate. The Order is hoping that they will get to the point where people can leave a note and stipulations with their gown. Hatfield hopes to create a system where if someone donates a gown to the gown library, years later, they can reserve the same gown for their kid when they come to Sewanee.
“Every gown will have so much meaning,” said Hatfield, “An alumnus from the Class of ‘70 sent his gown with a really cute note. We are hoping to create a system where that note will stay with that gown. We are hoping to create a really beautiful system.”
The Order of the Gown is asking for alumni to donate their gowns now. There will be a larger campaign in the spring to encourage graduating seniors to donate their gowns, and McKnight says she has already passed on her gown. They are pretty confident that they will have the gown library done by the end of the year.
“I am going to donate my gown to the gown library and write a note with it,” said Hatfield, “I’m really excited about it. I want the Order of the Gown to adapt to the 21 Century.”
At the time of the interview, fourteen people had applied for the fund. The cutoff date for applying for this round of the gown relief fund is September 14.
“We can help more people,” said Hatfield. “I’m hoping more people will ask for it.”