Prom dress giveaway gives D.C. area seniors a financial break

By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 2, 2010

Times are tough and, in many families, money is tight. But no matter what the state of the economy is, girls like Jessica Carpenter, a senior at Luke C. Moore Academy, still want a beautiful gown for the prom.

On Saturday, girls like Jessica got their wish.

For one day, volunteers with Once Upon a Prom converted the North Hall of Eastern Market into a New York-style sample sale (minus the hair pulling.) They gathered more than 2,000 new and gently used dresses and invited girls to choose one for free, as long as they had a valid high school ID.

Jessica spotted her dress from across the room as she waited for her turn to browse the more than dozen racks. It was long and silky, with graduated blue ombre shading.

"I kept watching it and saying, 'It's my dress. It's my dress,' " said the 18-year-old, grinning as she held it up for inspection. "I didn't want anybody to touch it.''

Ashley Taylor, a 27-year-old California native who moved to the District six years ago to help with the family business, launched the prom-dress giveaway in 2006. She and her friends wanted to help people in their community. Taylor can't remember who first thought of collecting prom dresses, but the group embraced the idea. They began collecting dresses, storing them in closets and garages and eventually the attic at Taylor's grandparents' home.

At their first event in 2007, held at a small church in the District, more than 200 girls walked away with dresses. The second year, the growing number of offerings included the pink spaghetti strap dress Taylor had worn to her prom.

"When you see how excited these girls are, it just makes your day,'' she said. On Friday, as she scurried about working out the last-minute details, Taylor quietly fretted that only a handful of girls might show.

"But it doesn't matter,'' she said. "If I give away just five dresses, it will be worth it."

It turned out Taylor needn't have worried. By the time she and her volunteers arrived at Eastern Market on Saturday morning to begin setting up, more than 60 girls, their mothers, sisters -- and a few fathers -- were lined up, eager to begin browsing. Just two hours into the event, they'd already given away more than 100 dresses.

The girls were admitted 10 at a time to peruse the racks. There were sleek BCBGMaxAzria gowns, daring Nicole Miller dresses, brightly colored eyebrow-raising minis and long shimmery frocks with elaborate beading. Some of the dresses still had tags attached.

The girls were encouraged to make their selections within 15 minutes, so that everyone would have an opportunity to browse. Makeshift dressing rooms were set up to try on the gowns. Volunteers snapped digital photos so the teens could see how the dresses looked when worn.

"It's really great," said Daryl Shambourger, who accompanied his daughter Nia, 17, a senior at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School. "As a parent in this economy -- between the prom dress, the prom ticket and graduation, it all gets so expensive. This is such a good opportunity."

The pair spent about a half-hour searching the racks until Nia found it -- a strapless, baby blue BCBGMaxAzria gown with a stylish bow in the back.

Nia's expression turned dreamy at just the thought of wearing it.

"It's so flowy,'' she said. She could already see herself on the dance floor swaying to the music.

Father and daughter had so much fun picking Nia's dress, they decided to stay on for a few hours to help other girls make their selections.

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