GARDINER — The lunch tables at Gardiner Area High School were replaced Friday with rows and rows of prom dresses.

More than 1,000 dresses provided by The Cinderella Project of Maine were carefully sorted by size, color and style as students rushed in at 10 a.m. to pick one that will make their prom night memorable.

“What do you think, Mom?” Shania Milano asked her mom as she pulled out a blue, sequined dress.

“It’s not about what I think, it’s about what you feel,” her mother said.

The event, which is put on annually by the Belfast-based nonprofit, allows students from any school to pick out a prom dress — some of which can retail up to $400 in stores — for free. The goal is to remove the “stigma” of a second-hand prom dress, said coordinator Meg Gipson. But with the pandemic causing schools to cancel in-person prom nights, the event hasn’t taken place since 2019.

Milano drove from Piscataquis Community High School in Guilford after her mother learned about the event on Facebook.  The teen decided she spent too much on her prom dress last year, and the cost of senior-year activities were catching up to her.

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“I thought, ‘Why not?'” Milano said.

Owen Wallace, a senior at Gardiner Area High School, volunteered his time as a “Fairy Godmother” to help students pick out dresses. While The Cinderella Project also hosts an annual event in Belfast, Wallace said it should spread to more areas of the state.

“It’s a great opportunity for people who can’t afford to get a dress they love,” he said.

Though many students were unable to afford a store-bought dress, some who could buy one still chose to examine the Cinderella Project’s offerings before looking at stores like Macy’s or J.C. Penney. Donations were encouraged if people could contribute.

Ahead of the event, Gipson was unsure how many people would show up. In years past, she said, students started to line up at 5 a.m.

Brooke Gero, left, gets some advice on which dress to pick from Laurali Thompson, center, and Livi Thompson during The Cinderella Project’s event Friday in the Gardiner Area High School cafeteria. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

By 10:30 a.m., half an hour into the event, around 20 students arrived, most of whom attend Gardiner Area or Hall-Dale high schools. Others came from further away, such as Lawrence High School in Fairfield, and 11 schools were represented in all. But no one was waiting in line before the event started this year.

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Gipson attributed the lower attendance this year to the event taking place on a Friday instead of Saturday, when it is usually held. Factors such as high fuel prices or the uncertainty of prom with the pandemic could also have an impact on the number of students coming, Gipson said.

Most students who came to the event attended prom last year, but many called it a “last-minute” prom.

Eden Leighton, a senior at Gardiner, said she came to look for a prom dress because she “doesn’t usually wear dresses.” Like Milano, Leighton thought, “Why not see if there is anything I like?” She ended up leaving with a yellow dress, beaded at the top with a tulle skirt.

The Cinderella Project of Maine started in Belfast in 2009.

Gipson, an art teacher at the high school, brought the organization to Gardiner in 2014 after wanting to help students find free or low-cost dresses. Her husband gave her the idea to look into programs across the state to see if there was anything similar to her vision and soon enough, she found The Cinderella Project.

“I started teaching here in Gardiner in 2011, and I saw a need for kids accessing dresses because I had a number of students who were considering not attending prom because they didn’t have anything special to wear,” Gipson said. “High school kids want to express themselves in the way they want, not a hand-me-down dress from Mom.”

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Gipson connected with Mandy Sawyer, who started the program in Belfast, and got to work writing grants through Gardiner Main Street for things such as dress racks, clothes hangers and other miscellaneous objects to get the project off the ground.

In her first year, she started with “only 300” dresses, calling it a small number now that she has over 1,000 dresses annually for students. Gipson said most students will return their dresses after prom.

One volunteer, Doreen Plaisted, found her daughter Deanna’s prom dress in the mix. She pulled it out and wondered if someone would go home with the dress, which is black with tulle on the bottom. Her daughter got the dress at The Cinderella Project for her prom in 2017.

With so many dresses, Gipson keeps them in her art closet at the high school, which she calls her “super secret storage stash.”

She hopes the program only gets bigger, although, she might need to invest in a storage unit.

“We have seen an increase in need among families to access services in general and anything in general is hard right now,” Gipson said. “Our goal is to provide fabulous, free dresses to students in Maine attending formal events in the spring, really focusing on the student well-being, helping kids thrive, offering families support and making dresses that aren’t brand new commonplace.”

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