GARDINER — When Maggie Coffin, now a senior at Gardiner Area High School, was a freshman, she came across her perfect prom dress for sale online for a whopping $450. She loved it so much, she admits today, she would have paid that much if she had the cash. Alas, as a freshman she wasn’t allowed to go to the prom anyway. But she didn’t forget that dress. She still has a photograph of it on her laptop.

Saturday morning, a glowing Coffin walked across the stage at Johnson Hall wearing the real deal — that oh-so-perfect dress she’d admired four years ago.

The flowing cream and orange dress, along with about 600 others, was available for free to her or any other high school girl in Maine.

Not wanting to risk seeing her dream dress on someone else, Coffin got to the Cinderella Project of Maine’s prom dress giveaway in downtown Gardiner fairly early, around 7:30 a.m., for its 9 a.m. start.

Even arriving that early, she was four girls back in line. But the dress, which she knew was in there because she had seen it modeled by another student as part of a fashion show at the high school promoting the event, was right there on one of the several racks of dresses when she got inside.

As was the strapless, pink, sequined Sherri Hill dress Gardiner senior Mariah Lang wore, and fell in love with in the fashion show promoting the giveaway, but then had to surrender so it could join the other dresses on the racks at the giveaway.

After spending a sleepless night thinking about the dress, she woke up around 5 a.m. Saturday and decided she might as well head downtown to get in line and make sure she scooped up that dress before it disappeared. She didn’t just get in line, she started it. At 5:45 a.m., alone. It wasn’t until an hour later that she was joined by the second-earliest arrival, Sadie Perry, a senior at Richmond High School, and her mom, Marie Perry, of Dresden.

“I fell in love with the dress, and I’m going to get it,” Lang said minutes before the doors of Johnson Hall were opened to let the girls, a handful at a time, in to pick out their dresses. “It’s like a ball gown, modern with a fairy tale feel to it.”

It was the second year in a row Lang got her prom dress at the giveaway, which was also in its second year. She said last year the dress she got at the giveaway went over well at prom, and she felt good knowing she hadn’t spent hundreds of dollars on it.

“I’m going to college, I need money for books,” she said, noting that the prom, between tickets and dinner, is still pretty expensive. “This is a good way for everyone to be able to go. A lot of people don’t go to prom because of the money.”

Sadie Perry said she liked being able to get the same type of dress, for free, as some of her peers might get for $200 or $300 or more.

Marie Perry said she is grateful her daughter is a “bargain hunter,” and said they wished there was a similar program for boys. She said her son also plans to go to the prom this year, but will borrow a suit from his older brother rather than pay to rent a tuxedo.

The Cinderella Project of Maine started in Belfast in 2006 and expanded to Gardiner last year. The program collects donated dresses that might otherwise just sit, used once, in a closet, and gives them away to girls, some of whom might not be able to afford to go to the prom otherwise.

Girls getting the dresses are asked to “pay it forward” by doing something good for their community, and are also encouraged to return the dresses to the program so they can, once again, be given to someone else for their prom.

“It’s not just a giveaway, it’s more of a mindset, and a concept,” said Meg Gipson, a Gardiner Area High School teacher and an organizer of the event. “Our goal is to give away 100 dresses, and it looks like we may get there.”

When the doors opened at 9 a.m., the line of girls and their friends and family members with them was at least two-wide and extended roughly 100 feet from the Johnson Hall door, past the mini-park and into the next block. The crowd appeared at least twice as big as last year, the event’s first year in Gardiner.

Several adult volunteers, in “Fairy Godmother” T-shirts, helped the girls find dresses in their sizes, and guided them to dressing rooms to try them on.

Gipson said student volunteers helped, leading up to the event, by helping collect and move around racks of dresses and do other preparations for the big day.

The event is open to any Maine high school student, not just local girls. While most girls were from the area Saturday, some came from as far as Oxford Hills and Appleton.

Of course, where there are girls, there are usually some boys — in this case, at least one boyfriend, and a handful of fathers.

Brandon Moore was there to accompany his girlfriend, Brianna Knowles, and her friend Abby Corson as they looked for dresses. They got in line at 7:56 a.m.

“She found her dress right away, she was happy,” Moore said of Knowles, explaining he was there, “because she asked me to come. I said sure, because she’s done stuff for me before.”

He said he’ll probably rent a tuxedo for the prom, a white one with peach-colored accents, to match his girlfriend’s dress.

Dana Pelletier waited patiently against the wall while his daughter, Alissa, a sophomore, tried on dresses with her mother, Connie.

“I’ll tell you, this is a nice thing they’re doing here, putting dresses out like this, that’s the community coming together,” he said of the event. “A lot of parents can’t afford dresses today.”

He said as a father he hoped his daughter would choose a dress that covered up well. She came out of the dressing room in a striking tan floor-length dress, which he said looked good. But, he added, what she ended up choosing was up to her.

Many of the dresses were collected at a dress donation day at the high school in March. Several people also dropped off dresses Saturday, some with the tags still on them.

“We’ve got a lot of different sizes and colors,” Gipson said of the racks of dresses, which were shared with a similar event in Belfast. “That’s good, because we’ve got many different kinds of kids who come. And we want to have a variety of dresses for them.”

She said after falling in love with a dress, it may be hard for girls to, as they are asked to do, donate their dresses back after their proms.

“That can be a tough thing, but it’s good practice,” she said. “You’re giving up something you enjoy, so someone else can experience that joy too.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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