For last year's prom, Megan Coulter, 19, wore a skirt and blouse because the cost of fancy, formal gown was too expensive.
"Look at her now. Wow," Helen Coulter said of her granddaughter as the teen modeled a full-length, halter-style olive green gown and silver shoes for this year's prom.
The Elizabeth Township grandmother and granddaughter were among dozens of shoppers last week at the Project Prom shop on the third floor of Century III mall, where eligible high school girls chose free formal attire from a selection of clean and stylish items.
The Coulters were accompanied by Megan's boyfriend, Clay Cochenour, 17, and his father, Mark Cochenour of Liberty.
"In my day, jobs were plentiful as the mills were going strong," Mr. Cochenour said. "But today, so many so many are laid off and unemployed."
In addition to gowns in a variety of styles, colors and sizes, the shop offered free shoes, purses, wraps, jewelry -- even hosiery.
Celebrating its 10th anniversary, Project Prom is a program of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services.
The gowns at the shop are either slightly worn donations or they are unsold inventory donated through a partnership with local boutiques.
In 2003, 348 dresses were collected. This year, almost 1,000 gowns were collected, helping 200 girls.
For those who missed last week's sale, a public sale will be held at the Project Prom shop from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 30. No item will be priced for more than $25. Everyone is invited, regardless of income level.
Sale proceeds go to Project Prom for Gentlemen, where young men who meet eligibility requirements receive tuxedo vouchers and attend a catered dinner at which they are taught formal meal etiquette skills, the basics of treating their dates respectfully, how to tie a bowtie and more. Project Prom for Gentlemen will be held from 5 to 8 p.m. April 4, 11, 18 and 25 at the Human Services Building, One Smithfield St., Downtown. Registration is required at 412-350-3428.
Among last week's shoppers were Wardell Coleman of Penn Hills, who accompanied daughter Ashley Coleman, 17, of Friendship.
"I'm proud of her, she's a good student so I won't say 'no' to anything she selects," Mr. Coleman said. "It's what she likes that matters."
After trying on seven dresses, Ashley chose a sleeveless, full-length, navy blue gown studded with gold and silver sequins.
Judy Ondechek brought granddaughter Raeleen Walker, 15, both of Elizabeth Township.
Mrs. Ondecheck said when she attended her prom 50 years ago, her mother spent $250 for her gown, shoes, accessories and a swimsuit for the after-prom gathering.
Even without converting to today's dollars, she said, the amount would be prohibitive for Raeleen, who is one of three teenage daughters of a single mother.
After trying on eight dresses, Raeleen chose a sleeveless, knee-length, silver gown with lace and sequins -- photos of which she texted to her best friend and to her mother.
To make the most of their shopping experience, girls were paired with a personal stylist, such as volunteer LaJuana Fuller of Moon from the UPMC Center for Inclusion.
"I love the young ladies' excitement," Ms. Fuller said. "By the time they come to me [at the accessories desk], they have their dress and shoes and this is the icing on the cake."
Information: www.alleghenycounty.us/dhs/projectprom or 412-350-3428.neigh_south
Margaret Smykla, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.