Free program helps students look sharp at the prom

| Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Katina Brown said the pink-and-white, "poofy" dress she picked out yesterday will be perfect for her Cinderella-themed high-school prom.

The price was right, too. She had seen similar dresses for as much as $400, but Brown snagged hers for free at the first of three giveaways hosted by Allegheny County's Project Prom.

"I get to be the princess at prom," said Brown, 18, a Brashear High School senior. "All eyes on me."

A community outreach program created by the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, Project Prom has helped more than 900 students during the past six years. With the down economy, the program is getting extra attention this spring as students look to make a splash without spending a lot of cash.

Project Prom operates out of the SOURCE shop on the third floor of Century III Mall and has two remaining sessions for free dresses — from 3 to 6 p.m. today and tomorrow.

More than 1,000 new and slightly used dresses — along with shoes, purses and accessories — are available to girls who receive public assistance from the county, participate in the free lunch program or whose parents receive unemployment compensation.

Project Prom also has a limited number of vouchers for tuxedo rentals.

Girls lined up more than two hours before the event started yesterday. Organizers capped the number of shoppers at 70 and allowed five people inside at a time. Each girl was helped by a volunteer personal shopper.

"A lot of girls have never worn a formal gown before," said Samantha Baer-McVicker, Project Prom coordinator. "They have no clue what size they wear. That's why we have our volunteers help them out. They can try on as many as they want. They get a dress, side item, shoes, purse and jewelry if they can find all those things that fit and they like."

Project Prom received so many donated items this year that organizers are planning to sell the remaining outfits from noon to 6 p.m. next Wednesday. Prices will start at $5. Proceeds benefit Project Prom.

"It makes me want to go back to prom," said volunteer Melissa Panchura. "They get these dresses for nothing. A lot of them are gently used or new with the tags still on it."

Brenda Swinton of the North Side came to the sale with her daughter Christina, a junior from the former Schenley High, who was hoping to find a dress for her first prom.

"I was out looking for dresses and looking at the prices and saying, 'OK, how can I afford this dress with the budget that I have?' " Brenda Swinton said.

She said she lost her job in January. Although Christina's first impulse was to push for a new dress, she was willing to give Project Prom a try, her mother said.

"If Mommy was working, we would've gone out and done what we had to do," Swinton said. "But since Mommy isn't working, we need some help right now."

Walking out of the event yesterday, Brown already was sold on her dress.

"It kind of reminds me of Cinderella," she said. "Everybody wants to be Cinderella at prom, and that's what I wanted."

Additional Information:

Project prom

Donations of new or gently worn formal attire are accepted at the SOURCE store, year-round, on the first Wednesday of the month between 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. or by appointment. Monetary donations can be made year-round and will go toward the purchase of tuxedo rentals and hard-to-find dress sizes.

More information about Project Prom, including the eligibility criteria and application process to receive prom attire or how to make a donation, is available at the Project Prom Web site or by calling 412.350.3428.

Another prom benefit

The Art Institute of Pittsburgh plans to sponsor a benefit for cystic fibrosis research called Pittsburgh's Finest Prom Closet at the former Ann Taylor Loft at the South Side Works. The event will be from 4 to 8 p.m. April 17 and noon to 6 p.m. April 18.

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