CNCounty News

County makes a rite of passage possible with ‘Project Prom Dress’

High school students peruse accessories to go with their dresses at Montgomery County, Md’s “Project Prom Dress” held at the Department of Recreation. Photos courtesy of Montgomery County

Prom is a cultural touchstone. It’s hard to overstate the event’s impact on American culture — it’s immortalized in countless films and songs and, for many teens, it signifies the ending of high school and the beginning of the rest of their life. But first, you need a dress. 

Montgomery County, Md.'s Department of Recreation offers free dresses, suits and accessories for prom through its “Project Prom Dress” to students who otherwise might not be able to afford to go. 

“It makes such a difference for young people and their families, who might not otherwise have the opportunity, or would sacrifice something else in their life — reduce groceries, skip a utility bill, I’ve heard those kinds of things — just so their young person can have this memorable event in their life,” said Robin Riley, director of Montgomery County Recreation

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Montgomery County’s Project Prom Dress is the winner of a 2023 Best in Category Achievement Award in the Parks and Recreation category.

For Audrey Kirwan, a senior at James Hubert Blake High School, Project Prom Dress is giving her the opportunity to make the event “her own.” 

She was originally planning on wearing a dress her mother had worn as a bridesmaid in a wedding, but was able to pick out her own dress, along with a handbag, heels and a matching necklace and earrings at the county’s third annual Project Prom Dress event, which was held April 13 at the Marilyn J Praisner Community Recreation Center.

Kirwan had a specific vision for her prom dress — sparkly (like her friends were wearing) and purple — and she saw the perfect pick the moment she stepped into the event, she said. 

“It was one of the dresses they had up on a mannequin when I walked in,” Kirwan said. “It was really pretty; it took me off guard. I saw it and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is such a pretty dress.’ It’s light purple and it’s really, really sparkly. 

“As soon as I saw it, I knew that it was going to be the perfect dress for me.”

Kirwan “can’t wait” to wear her new dress at prom next weekend. 

It will be the last big event before she graduates and heads to Benedictine College in the fall to play soccer. 

“This allowed me to have my own special dress for prom, which is a really big experience,” Kirwan said. 

“… It’s a really beautiful opportunity for high school students.”

Two years ago, Sharon Pitt, a recreation coordinator for the county at the time who is now retired, created the event to help support families who were struggling financially. 

“She was very connected in the community to the youth that would visit her rec center, so she heard a lot about the needs of the young people coming in,” Riley said. “This was coming right out of COVID, and things were tough for lots of families. 

“This event takes place over in the east county area of Montgomery County, which is very culturally diverse, there’s high [transience] and she knew that a lot of those families were construction workers, restaurant workers and their families were really struggling.”

Pitt had previously worked at a local radio station, WGC-FM, and enlisted the studio’s help to spread the word about the county event. 

Montgomery County also advertises Project Prom Dress among its youth-centered county programs, including Youth Development and Fashion Boot Camp, and through the local public schools, but it was through WGC-FM that Gayle Gulley heard about the initiative. 

Gulley donated 92 dresses to Project Prom Dress in 2023 from her sister Cathy’s extensive collection. Cathy, who loved to travel the world and attend operas, had passed away months earlier from cervical cancer. 

After hearing about Project Prom Dress on the radio, Gulley decided to donate the dresses to “keep her spirit alive.”

“She lived for dressing up,” Gulley said. “And it just really would have meant a lot to her that something of hers would live on and that other people could get some happiness and feel really beautiful.”

Another person donated 40 vests and cummerbunds last year. 

Although the county does occasionally get large donations from individuals and groups, “around 95%” of the donations are individual items, Riley said.

 “They’re individuals that either their daughter or son has gone on to college and they know they’re never going to use that dress or need that suit or tie again,” Riley said. “They appreciate what we’re doing, and they want to contribute and make a difference.”

In the project’s first two years, Montgomery County worked with a local dry-cleaning business, ZIPS Cleaners, to clean all the donated dresses and suits. The cleaner did “a lot of offset donations,” essentially giving the county a 50% discount, Riley said. 

Other local businesses the county works with to offer student discounts include hair and nail salons, makeup artists and limo services. Kirwan said she was going to get her dress tailored through a discount she was offered at the event. 

While the event is open to all prom-goers, it’s intended for teens who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford a dress or suit for the big event and the county advertises it primarily in low-income neighborhoods.

“We know that the residents there are struggling a little bit still financially,” Riley said. “Things are still tough — I mean, a grocery bill is still $300. But we don’t screen anybody, we don’t say, ‘You have to be from these ZIP codes,’ or anything like that.”

After hearing community feedback from its first Project Prom Dress, Montgomery County Recreation added a request for men’s prom apparel, so male high school students could have a similar opportunity. The county now offers men’s suits, vests, ties, cummerbunds, shoes, alongside dresses, jewelry and accessories like purses and scarves. 

“We definitely heard, ‘Hey, I have a son and it would be great if you guys had a suit or a tux,’ so it just sort of grew wings and kept growing,” Riley said. “… It’s sort of taken on a life of its own and it grows each year.”

The county partnered with Montgomery College-East County Education Center to have a resource table to share information on summer school and food distribution for those who may face food insecurity during the summer months.

For the first time, the county also set aside a specific number of items for students with disabilities; around 60 teens in the school district’s Special Education program came to Project Prom Dress this year, Riley said. 

In its first year alone, more than 1,700 dresses were donated, and the event continues to grow each year, according to Riley. While hundreds of students in the area attend Project Prom Dress, there are always items left over. The county stores what it can for the following year, but also donates excess items to other local organizations, including faith-based organizations, an LGBTQ+ organization and a quinceañera organization that has a similar mission to Project Prom Dress. 

“This is a big deal to lots of youth in our community,” Riley said. “[Prom] is one of those pivotal things and in high schools that make a difference, to build confidence and self-esteem and that grit that young people need, to be able to attend with all their friends. 

“And if they can’t, because of finances, that’s sad, so when we can turn the dime on that a little bit I think it’s a really cool thing to do.” 

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