Jubilee house hails ‘Cinderellas’

When the idea for “Operation Cinderella” came to Sue Dunigan, she literally heard bells ringing.

In 1999, Dunigan, who with her husband William Dunnigan, heads the Salvation Army’s Jubilee House in Dorchester, was ringing the Salvation Army bell for their annual holiday donation drive outside of a local mall. Dunigan noticed that many of the women shoppers were accompanied by children or co-workers, and most came out carrying purchases for their children or their company parties.

Few, if any, noted Dunigan, had bought anything for themselves.
Dunigan wanted to find a way to show appreciation for these women who always put the needs of others first.  With the help of some of her staff at Jubilee House, the first Operation Cinderella began in December 2000 with 15 women who had been nominated by Salvation Army staff and volunteers.  

Fast forward to this past Monday evening when Jubilee House, bedecked in all its holiday splendor, welcomed 50 women for the 9th annual Operation Cinderella.  No children, no significant others, no excuses.  This year’s theme was “Hidden Heroes,” which Melissa Seiler, Volunteer Events Coordinator for Jubilee House, said was an appropriate focus for the night.

“We see pop stars on television being glorified,” she said, but there are women among us who “don’t make millions, don’t sing, don’t dance, but they are still heroes.

“The teacher we leave our children with who teaches them how to read is a hero.  The single mother who works three jobs is a hero to her kids,” said Seiler.  Operation Cinderella aims to recognize these unsung heroes.

Seiler was among the first Cinderellas invited for “A Night to Remember.”  She had just moved to Boston and found herself homeless with her children.  She visited Jubilee House and began to volunteer.

She kept coming back until Dunigan gave her a job. Seiler now orchestrates all the vendor selection and fund-raising that running Operation Cinderella entails.  “This is pride and joy for me.  I have been on both sides and I don’t know which one is more important...At the end of the night when someone puts a head on your shoulder and says, ‘I had the best time,’ I know that God brought them to me,” said Seiler.  

Planning for the event begins in August but letters of nomination are circulated in October.  Community members are asked to nominate women who deserve a night out.  Nominators are then required to make every accommodation for their nominee so that, if selected, she may attend.
Sonya Jones, a therapist from Dorchester, usually takes care of paperwork on Monday evenings. As one of the Cinderellas of this year’s night, though, she had to do “a little adjusting.  I thought this was a great opportunity to take a minute for myself.  It feels good to just sit here,” said Jones as she and other Cinderellas enjoyed the hors d’oeuvres in front of the Christmas tree in the Jubilee House parlor.

The Cinderellas are also offered free manicures as they arrive.  Sheila Darling of Dorchester has volunteered to give them for the last few years.  The mother of four came to Jubilee House 13 years ago and continues to attend Bible studies there.  “I love what the Salvation Army stands for.  It accepts people.  It helps people who are down.  I love the fact that [Sue Dunigan] reaches out and doesn’t look for recognition.  She always says, ‘God knows what I do.’”
After appetizers and pampering, the Cinderellas are whisked away in white carriages.

Few if any of the princesses know what surprises the night will reveal, and Jubilee House prides itself on keeping mum so that future Cinderella stories can be written. But witness accounts reported seven white stretched limousines were parked outside of 10 Melville Avenue on Monday, and 50 women and their Jubilee House escorts were ushered into the vehicles along with gift bags for every one.  The ladies returned by 10 p.m. all of them carrying more bags than they had when they departed.

Said Nancy Hicks of Milton, who has experienced Operation Cinderella as a nominee in the past: “I missed my senior prom because my mother was diagnosed with cancer.  I remember getting to ride in the [Operation Cinderella] limo and thinking, ‘Hey, this is like the prom I never had!’” Now Hicks volunteers so that others may enjoy the night.  She said her favorite part is seeing the joy and surprise on the women’s faces.  “It is so unexpected.  They are given gift bags with gift cards that they have to spend on themselves,” she said.
Sue Dunigan said the No. 1 item that Cinderellas return with is underwear. For themselves.  Even Cinderella needs underwear.