GARDINER — At least 50 “Cinderellas” found their prom dresses Saturday, for free.

The high school girls didn’t have to be a perfect match for a glass slipper, though several did come away with pairs of shoes for the big occasion. They just had to promise to “pay it forward” by giving back to the community in some way.

Some said that will include donating both their time and the dress they got Saturday at Johnson Hall back to the event organizer, the Cinderella Project of Maine, so another girl can wear it to her prom next year.

Reilly Moran and Victoria Nelder, juniors at Gardiner Area High School, both said they’ll donate the dresses they picked out Saturday back to the program so they can be used for another girl’s special night; and they and their mothers also said they wanted to help with the project next year.

“We want to help with this next year. It’s such a good cause,” said Reilly’s mother, Carol Moran.

“Every girl deserves to be able to be dressed up and feel like a princess,” she said, while waiting with about 50 other girls and their friends and families, before her daughter, Reilly, picked out a blue-green dress.

The dresses, some new and with their original tags still attached, were provided by donors from the Gardiner area and elsewhere who gave to the Cinderella Project of Maine, which began in 2006 in Belfast and expanded to Gardiner for the first time this year. Several local businesses also sponsored the event.

The program puts dresses that otherwise might remain in someone’s closet, unused after being worn once, into the hands of girls who otherwise might not be able to afford a dress for the prom; and it enables some who would have spent money on a dress to save it for something else.

“Why spend $500 on the prom when you can spend that $500, instead, on something like books?” said Jessica Woods, of Belfast, who has helped with the project since its second year. “We want every girl to feel beautiful, because they are. The prom is a big deal, a rite of passage, and they deserve the opportunity to experience that. We’re not donating organs here; we’re not saving lives. But we’re helping girls feel good about themselves, and that’s as good as gold. And they may not get that on a regular basis.”

A chorus of “oohs” and “ahhs” and even some applause crossed the dress-rack-filled room Saturday as Julia Bustos, wearing a strapless off-white, gold-accented gown she’d just found, walked across a small stage where girls could model their potential new dresses for family and friends.

The beaming Gardiner Area High School senior had found her dress.

“It’s perfect,” she said.

Her mother, Leanna Bustos, said she wished there had been a program like the dress giveaway when she was in school. She said she recently came across a photo of herself as a young girl, headed to a seventh-grade dance in a plain dress she said made it appear she was just headed to school, not to a dance.

A total of 400 dresses, plus some shoes, handbags and a table full of jewelry, were available at no charge for the girls Saturday.

“They’re all free; however, we ask that you pay it forward by serving your community, and we’d appreciate it if you donate your dress back next year,” said Mandy Sawyer, on organizer of the event from Belfast.

The dresses were given away first come, first serve.

Meaghan Williams, a Gardiner Area High School junior, was first in line, with her mother, Cathy; and first to select a dress, an orange number that pleased both daughter and mother. It was the first one she tried on.

“I scored a beautiful floor-length dress,” Meaghan Williams said. They got in line around 7 a.m. for the event, which began at 9 a.m. They were back out the door, dress in hand, by 9:30.

Even though she loved her new dress, Meaghan said she’d give it back to the project next year, with another dress, too.

“She saw it and was, like, ‘Oh!,'” Cathy Williams said of her daughter and new dress. “It looks so beautiful on her.”

Spending on proms has been increasing faster than the rate of inflation, according to a survey by credit card company Visa. The company said families spent an average of $1,139 on proms in 2013.

Reilly Moran and Victoria Nelder, before the dress giveaway, had looked at dresses for their prom and found the ones they liked were between $150 and $200. Also, Moran noted, costs rise as girls buy shoes, get their hair and makeup done, and tally up other prom-related costs.

“Many girls just wouldn’t go to prom, because they couldn’t afford it” without the dress giveaway, Moran said.

Woods said they don’t do income checks and all are welcome to come pick out a dress. Even for those who are able to afford a dress, she noted that money could be better spent elsewhere, and getting a dress through the program is also a great form of recycling.

Several local residents came by with dresses to donate Saturday.

Brandy Foster, a Mount View High School senior from Unity, shopped for dresses with her aunt, Roxanne Gervais, who lives locally, trying on four before they found “the one,” a red dress for the prom in which, the aunt said, “she’s going to be beautiful.”

Which is pretty much the reaction a prom dress is supposed to elicit.

“We have over 400 dresses to give away today,” Meg Gipson, a local organizer of the event and art teacher at Gardiner Area High School, told the girls and their companions Saturday morning before the first several girls where allowed in to dress central. “They’re all stunning and gorgeous. And so are you.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647[email protected]Twitter: @kedwardskj