- Associated Press - Saturday, May 9, 2015

PITTSBURGH (AP) - When she went to her first high school prom, Sherry Thornhill couldn’t afford to purchase her own gown. So she borrowed one from a friend.

For the second year in a row, she wants to make sure high school girls in Ambridge don’t have to do the same and instead get the chance to sift through racks of expensive, beautiful gowns and select a dream dress.

“A lot them still have tags on them, and it’s just a blessing,” said Thornhill, wife of Rick Thornhill, pastor of New Hope Community Church. “The girls get so happy, because it’s not $5, it’s not $20, it’s totally free.”

New Hope’s Bless with a Dress program is one of several new and growing recycled prom dress programs in the area. Often started by youth groups or students, prom dress giveaways aim to take gowns worn once- or not at all -and gift them to girls who struggle to pay for one on their own.

Eva Rosen, a senior at Taylor Allderdice High School, is co-president of Becca’s Closet, a gown recycling program with chapters nationwide.

“They’re so expensive, and you wear them one time,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense for everyone to be spending hundreds of dollars on a dress.”

Starting in the final weeks of April, Rosen and fellow senior Anna Fireman transform a teacher’s lounge into a boutique. Girls from Allderdice, or any other high school, make appointments to shop. Her favorite part, Rosen said, is helping select gowns for each girl.

In 2014, about 30 girls chose from more than 100 dresses.

“We’re all in high school, we can understand the desire to have this experience,” she said.

“It’s bigger than just going to prom, it’s a special event in a teenager’s life.”

Thornhill began Bless with a Dress last year after a church in Cranberry had leftover gowns from a similar program. This year, she went back for more extras, taking along her two teen children to assist in choosing in-style selections, careful to bring back an array of sizes, colors and lengths.

On April 13, teen girls sifted through five racks of gowns and others displayed along the wall in a classroom on the second floor of the church. They eyed the beaded tulle ball gowns and ran their hands over sequined sheaths, trying on their favorites in a converted dressing room down the hall.

Cara Drum, who runs a youth ministry with her husband, David, at Real Life Church in Arnold, said she never could have imagined her mother paying $300 to $500 to buy a dress for her and her twin sister.

“I don’t care if you make six figures, I still think it would be fiscally responsible to just come and take a look at pre-owned dresses,” she said.

About 65 girls tried dresses at the church’s fourth annual free dress program.

Three hundred dresses filled the racks, including holdovers from previous years and new dresses brought in through a flyer posted at Chrissy’s Cuts, Color and Curls in Springdale.

“Nobody wants to throw those dresses away because they’ve spent hundreds of dollars on them,” she said.

“People want to donate their dresses because they know it’s going to go to a girl who might otherwise not be able to afford it.”

Ondréa Burton, events and donations manager at the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, heads up Project Prom.

The regional event offers free dresses to any girl whose family is enrolled in a DHS program, or other aid.

The program is in its 12th year, held at a vacant store in Century III Mall in West Mifflin. Community volunteers serve as style guides and mentors for the girls. Burton said they’re often women whose daughters went to prom years ago.

They outfitted nearly 500 teens this year, she said.

“The young ladies are walking away with so much more than just going to select a prom dress,” Burton said.

“Prom is a universal experience. It’s one of the quintessential high school experiences that everyone has and everyone can relate to.”

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Online:

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Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, https://pghtrib.com


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