GARDINER — After waking at 3:30 a.m. Saturday to make the drive from Greenville to Gardiner, where they were first in line for the Cinderella Project of Maine’s annual prom dress giveaway, senior Brianna Cobb and Italian exchange student Eleonora Inversi wrapped themselves in blankets as they waited, with Cobb’s mother, Kathy, to get inside to pick out their dresses.

They arrived at the front entrance to Gardiner Area High School around 5:45 a.m., first in line, and thus first to be able to choose from the more than 500 dresses waiting inside, when the doors opened at 9 a.m.

Immediately behind them, Gardiner Area High School students Brooke Moloney and Ceri Gruber also were wrapped in blankets, with Gruber completing the look with pajamas.

Once inside, where the fashions were decidedly more formal and fancy, Cobb, temporarily in a wheelchair, and Inversi immediately began scanning the many racks of dresses organized by size and color, to try to find that perfect dress.

Gruber and Moloney, on the other hand, knew exactly where they were going and which dresses they each wanted, having tried them on the day before after they volunteered to help set up the school cafeteria as a dress shop, where all the dresses were free, to get ready for the Saturday giveaway.

“We know where they are,” said Moloney, who quickly snatched up a purple dress she’d already tried on the day before.

Gruber, who, smiling, joked with other girls before they went in, “I will fight you for that dress,” had a brief scare when at first she couldn’t find the favorite she had already picked out, before finding the hot pink dress one rack over from where she was looking. Within a few minutes she was headed for the exit, pink dress folded over one arm, a blanket folded over the other.

It took most of the girls much longer to find their perfect dress. Cobb and Inversi tried on several each before Cobb chose a little black dress and Inversi found a pink dress with sequins she liked because it was “poofy, but not too poofy.”

“It’s a drive, but it’s worth it,” said Cobb’s mother, Kathy. “Between homecoming, winter carnival and prom every year, that’s 12 dresses. This makes it manageable.”

Meg Gipson, chairwoman of the project and an art teacher in Gardiner, said any Maine high school girl was eligible to come pick out a prom dress. She said there were no income restrictions, and noted even families who could afford to buy a prom dress could, perhaps, spend the money they might otherwise spend on a prom dress on other things, such as putting it toward college expenses.

“We provide an equal opportunity,” Gipson said. “We have over 500 dresses, in all sizes and all colors.”

In exchange for the dresses, students simply are asked to “pay it forward” by doing something for their community.

For many, that includes donating their prom dresses back to the program so other girls can enjoy them next year.

Moloney said she got her dress, which she loved, through the project last year as well, and donated it back this year.

Gipson said the project, beyond providing free prom dresses to high school students, is meant to promote positive self-esteem and encourage community volunteerism among teens.

The dresses were all donated, including many from dress shops and other businesses, such as Betsy’s and Dreams Bridal Boutique, both in Augusta. Renee Adams, owner of Dreams Bridal Boutique, was one of many volunteers at the event, greeting girls as they came in, wearing her Mrs. Maine International sash and crown.

Adams said she doesn’t see the dress giveaway as competition for her business, which also carries prom dresses. She and several “fairy godmother” volunteers offered words of encouragement as the girls modeled dresses for their friends and family, on a “runway” setup in the high school cafeteria, which was decorated in white and purple for the event.

“For me, I just want them to find a dress. Thank God there is a program like this available” said Adams, noting it can be emotional to watch a girl find a dress she’s happy with. “I’m just excited to be part of their moment. They’re all beautiful, in all different shapes and sizes.”

She said prom dresses can cost $150 to $600.

Gipson said so many people volunteered to help with the event that they had to turn volunteers away.

By 10:30 a.m., about 100 girls had come seeking dresses, with the event scheduled to continue until 2 p.m. Last year, Gipson said, they gave away 120 dresses.

Saturday’s event will be followed by another Cinderella Project prom dress giveaway, on April 22 in Belfast, where, Gipson said, about another 1,000 donated dresses are awaiting prom-going high school girls.

Sisters Chelsie and Tashia Berkey, who go to Mt. Blue High School in Farmington, each tried on multiple dresses, with Chelsie Berkey ultimately picking a maroon sleeveless number covered in sequins with a pants-like lower half to the outfit, and Tashia going with a long, flowing, purple-and-gold dress she tried on early in the event and came back to after trying on a few other dresses. She said she was looking for something sparkly, long, flowing and bright.

The girls and their mother, Tammy, said they planned to give the dresses back to the program after they are worn this year, so other girls have the opportunity to wear them.

A few accessories, including shoes, jewelry and handbags, also were available free.

Cindy Pooler, one of the fairy godmother volunteers, said one mother told her she and her daughter had driven three hours to be there.

“She said she didn’t think she had enough money for gas to drive here, but said if she didn’t come, her daughter wouldn’t have a dress,” Pooler said. “She left with a dress and a pair of shoes.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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