Project Prom allows Allegheny County teens to enjoy fancy night

| Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Going to a prom isn't cheap.

Spending to prepare for and attend the annual spring dance for high school upperclassmen increased by 5 percent nationally to an average of $1,139 per family between 2012 and 2013, according to a 2013 survey by Visa, Inc. In the Northeast, including Pennsylvania, the average cost for attire, limo rental, prom tickets and other items was $1,528.

That can make attending prom a difficult thing for teens in many families, particularly those from low-income homes or other challenging backgrounds.

For that reason, the Allegheny County Department of Human Services in 2003 started Project Prom, which gives free, donated formal gowns and accessories to teen girls who are served by the agency or meet other eligibility criteria, said Ondrea Burton, manager of events and donations for the agency.

Project Prom has grown, and the program's goal this year is to give dresses to between 400 and 500 teens, Burton said. More volunteers are needed to serve as personal stylists for girls as they try on dresses and accessories, and more donations of plus-size dresses are needed, she said.

Three years ago, the program expanded with Project Prom for Gentleman, in which 100 teen boys register to attend an etiquette workshop and receive vouchers for free tuxedo rentals.

“The prom can be so expensive that it can be out of reach for many girls,” said Tanya Mallory, who volunteers as a personal stylist at the Project Prom Shop in Century III mall in West Mifflin.

Mallory is the director of operations and programs at Dress for Success Pittsburgh, which provides work attire and career development tools for disadvantaged women.

“Well, it's very similar to our program in that it provides opportunities and items to women and girls who might not otherwise have them,” Mallory said of Project Prom.

The program needs more male mentors for the Project Prom for Gentlemen event, which will take place on April 10 at the Herberman Conference Center at UPMC Shadyside.

For that event, the teen boys are asked to arrive on time and wear shirts with collars and pants with a belt, Burton said. The volunteer mentors teach the boys how to tie ties and a certified etiquette coach teaches dining and other etiquette topics, Burton said.

The Project Prom for Gentlemen participants are mostly boys served by the Department of Human Services or those who have immediate family members served by the agency, Burton said.

“They are so respectful, and they really take it seriously. But they also have a good time and the mentors that come also have a good time, so it's just really awesome. We're really excited about this year,” she said.

The Project Prom gown giveaway for eligible girls will be from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 15 and from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. March 17 to 20 at the Project Prom shop in Century III. Participants must bring proof of eligibility and valid student identification. Also, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 29, anyone can buy a dress at the store; nothing is priced over $25 during the public sale.

Proceeds from the public sale are used to buy plus-size dresses and tuxedo rental vouchers, Burton said.

Project Prom is open to teen girls whose parents or guardians receive unemployment benefits, assistance from food pantries and/or utility payment assistance.

Girls who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches at school and those who are children of active or retired military personnel are eligible, too.

Staff writer Tory N. Parrish can be reached at

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