Racks of dresses filled the school's narrow hallway. Prom gowns and ball gowns and short cocktail dresses. All studded with rhinestones and seed beads and sequins.
Kay Dillinger and her friend Cat Coats had spent the morning at the PACE Center for Girls sorting more than 300 dresses. Now they had to help 25 students find something to wear to the annual "Value Me" fashion show.
Many of the teenagers had never worn a dress.
"Let's start rolling these into the lunchroom," Kay said, sounding tired. "The girls will be here any minute."
She steered the dresses down the hall, stopped in front of a doorway painted hot pink. A sign above it said, "Beth's Closet."
Inside were stacks of jeans, belts and purses and a wall full of dresses. These were more casual: cotton prints and filmy sundresses. Kay stared at a strapless cobalt rayon shift hanging on a silver hook. It had belonged to her daughter.
"Oh, Beth," she whispered, "you gotta get me through this."
• • •
Kay was a young court reporter working in Pinellas County when she met a handsome lawyer named Bob Dillinger. They got married. Bought a house. Raised a daughter.
Beth was sunny and kind. She loved playing dress-up. But from an early age, she seemed haunted. She had terrible stomachaches, migraines by age 7. "And these horrible nightmares," Kay said. "She'd cry: 'The bad man is coming!' "
Beth couldn't describe the bad man. For years, he wouldn't go away.
At Boca Ciega High, Beth was a cheerleader and homecoming princess. "But she was always seeking out the kids no one else wanted to be with," said her mom.
"She was queen of the dollar store," said her dad. "Whenever anyone was sick or hurting, Beth would get them something little, let them know they were loved."
Beth was at the University of Florida when her dad was elected public defender.
After college, Beth moved back in with her parents. Got a job as a personal trainer.
She and her mom spent long weekends cruising Tyrone Square Mall, trying on outfits from Charlotte Russe and Forever 21. "She always wanted to be perfect," Kay said. "She was always so hard on herself."
Beth was 26 before she told her parents that a relative had touched her inappropriately when she was a little girl. She kept trying to end her nightmares, numb the ache.
She started ordering prescription painkillers online.
At age 31, she got engaged. She and her fiance planned to get married the next spring.
In 2006, Kay and Bob were heading to their river house in Brooksville for the Labor Day weekend. Beth was sitting on their couch with her cat when they said goodbye. "She told us she loved us," Kay said, "but her eyes looked so sad."
They were at the Publix when Bob's cell rang. It was Beth's fiance. She had shot herself in the head. And left her parents a note. "The light at the end of the tunnel has faded," she wrote. "You were the best parents in the world. Please forgive me . . ."
• • •
The PACE girls huddled in the doorway, pulling at their T-shirts.
"Welcome, ladies!" Kay called. "Come see what you like." A tall girl with a black Mohawk pulled out a silver tube dress. "What size are you?" Kay asked.
The girl laughed. "I don't know."
Kay wiped her eyes. How can a 17-year-old not know her dress size? Some of these girls never had anyone to take them shopping, or tell them they're beautiful.
Sometimes when Kay sees a petite girl with long, dark hair, she catches her breath. Beth would have turned 37 next month. But to Kay, she will never get older. "The hardest thing I had to admit," Kay said, "is that I'm not a mom anymore."
A girl with auburn bangs slumped over. "I'm the punk. I don't do dresses," she said. A choker around her thin throat said, "Misfit." She flipped through the clothes rack fingering the fabrics. "How 'bout this one?" she asked, holding out a white satin gown. "It looks like a wedding dress."
"Yes, try that on," Kay said. "Someday you'll make a beautiful bride."
• • •
She had been planning Beth's wedding, then had to plan her funeral. Instead of flowers, Kay and Bob asked for donations to the PACE school.
The nonprofit serves teenagers who have been abused or arrested, or are struggling. The type of people Beth cared so much about.
Friends, family and strangers donated $25,000 to the Beth Dillinger Foundation. A matching grant brought the total to $50,000. Some of the money funded college scholarships.
The rest started Beth's Closet.
"That closet," Bob said, "saved Kay's life."
For months after burying Beth, Kay couldn't leave the house. She wouldn't go to the grocery or mall. She couldn't bear to see other mothers with their daughters.
Kay's friend Cat, who is married to Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats, was worried. She offered to help sort through Beth's clothes. Another friend asked, why not give them to the PACE girls?
So teachers emptied a school storage area. Bob hung shelves and painted the room hot pink. Kay and Cat packed Beth's 50 pairs of shoes, 20 jeans, 40 dresses. Then they took foundation money and went shopping, to make sure there was something for girls of every size.
Beth's Closet opened on Valentine's Day 2007. Each student got to choose two items. Some of the girls had never had new clothes. Others marveled at Beth's cutting-edge ensembles.
"Beth liked leather skirts and leopard prints, tops that went over one shoulder," Kay said. "When a girl came out wearing Beth's favorite brown dress, I cried."
It was so hard, watching pieces of her daughter walk out the door.
• • •
By 3:30 p.m., they were finished. The girls had all chosen gowns for the fashion show. Silver lame, tangerine chiffon and a shiny sea green taffeta that turned the "Misfit" into a mermaid.
"Look at you! You're gorgeous," Kay told the girl.
"Who knew?" giggled Blair Suttrich, 16. "I'm the punk, remember? I've never had anything that sparkled."
The year after Beth's Closet opened, Kay and Cat started the fashion show. They brought in $30,000. More scholarships, more clothes. Girls get to go to the closet every holiday. It has become an incentive, said PACE Executive Director Sally Zeh, a boost to their self-esteem.
For Kay, the project is therapy. For a few days every year, she gets to dress up girls. And feel like a mom again.
Last year was the first time Kay could display Beth's portrait at the luncheon. This year, after almost five years, she said, "I'm finally learning to say her name without crying."
While the students changed into their T-shirts, Kay and Cat parked the clothes racks back outside Beth's Closet.
There was the strapless cobalt rayon shift, still clinging to its silver hook, the last of Beth's dresses. Kay thought one of the girls had claimed it.
She cradled it across her arm and closed her eyes.
Lane DeGregory can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8825.