Belles of the Ball
A prom dress giveaway ensures an enchanted evening for hundreds of Maine girls.
Photographed by Gwen Ackley-Sylvia
If you happen to be passing through Belfast on Route 1 in the morning on April 6, you will no doubt notice the long line snaking around the Renys Plaza parking lot. You’ll likely observe that the queue consists almost entirely of teenage girls, and, that judging from the blankets and lounge chairs, they’ve been there quite a while. You might wonder what could possibly have gotten teenagers out of bed so early on a Saturday morning. Tickets to a Taylor Swift concert? An autograph session with Justin Beiber?
Try prom dresses. Or, to be more specific, free prom dresses.
Now in its eighth year, the Cinderella Project is as good an example of Yankee frugality as you’ll find. Volunteers — they call themselves fairy godmothers — collect hundreds of used and new gowns throughout the year and give them away in a festive one-day event to any girl who wants one. Ordinarily, a new prom dress costs three hundred dollars to five hundred dollars — a hefty price for something worn only once.
Mandie Sawyer co-founded the program by adapting a money-saving idea that she used when she was in high school. “I grew up in Brewer, and my best friend and I dated boys from Bangor,” Sawyer recalls. “We had two proms to go to, so we just swapped gowns.”
Thirteen dresses were given away that first year at Belfast Area High School, where Sawyer was teaching at the time. This year the Cinderella Project, now under the umbrella of Waldo Community Action Partners (WCAP), expects to give more than 250 gowns to girls who will travel from all corners of the state. (Last year a group drove from the lumber town of Baileyville, three hours away on the New Brunswick border.)
All of the dresses are donated. Most are used, but a large number come to the project brand new from bridal shops. “They come in with three hundred to four hundred dollar price tags on them,” says Tabitha Lowe, WCAP’s community projects manager. “The girls can’t believe they have a dress that nice.”
Lowe says the program is not just about cutting prom costs. It’s about fostering a spirit of generosity. Girls are encouraged to “pay it forward” — that is, repay the gift of a gown by doing a good deed for someone else. “It could be holding the door open for someone at the grocery or volunteering at the soup kitchen,” Lowe says. “A lot of girls donate their dresses back.”
The volunteers also aim to boost girls’ self-esteem. “We want the girls to feel beautiful,” Lowe says, “because no matter the color, style, or size of the dress, they are beautiful.”
— Virginia M. Wright