Whether a sparkly, A-line strapless or a long, silky halter, the perfect dress to wear to the prom is a preoccupation for many high school girls. But in these tough financial times, buying the prom dress of their dreams may be a stretch.
Enter Kim Peters, 35, who is providing underprivileged girls with beautiful, free prom gowns and a chance to feel like Cinderella.
"Proms are a big night for young girls," Peters said, playing the role of fairy godmother. "Wanting to fit in, wanting to feel pretty, wanting to have the same experience as your other girlfriends are having. That's important. That's important emotionally."
Nine years ago, Peters started the Prom Shop Project in Dallas, Texas, to provide new or gently used dresses to needy girls. In 2001, 75 dresses were donated. This year, the project has collected 5,000 dresses and has expanded to dress young women in Austin and San Antonio.
"My favorite part is seeing girls come into the Prom Shop Project really, really calm and really, really cool," Peters said. "To go from that to, 'Oh, my gosh, I can't believe I found a dress that I love. I can't wait to try it on.'"
With the recession taking its toll, this year's prom season is shaping up to be Peters' busiest yet.
"There's even more so of a need this year," Peters said. "And to be able to go out into the community and say, 'You don't have to worry about that, moms and dads, we've got that taken care of,' is gratifying."
Tammy Eckenroad drove 65 miles from Johnson City, Texas, to get dresses for her daughter Katy and foster daughter Krista.
"We felt like it was defeated -- like they would not get to go because to put two of them in prom dresses this time ... it's a lot," Eckenroad said. "It's a lot of money and expense and I didn't want to tell them no."
Katy's father was killed in Iraq in November, leaving Eckenroad with the weight of the family's finances on her shoulders. But at the Prom Shop, that all slips away, as Eckenroad watches her daughter step into the perfect prom dress and become a princess in front of her eyes.
"They're playing in the dresses, modeling in the dresses ... and ... walk out just full of joy," Peters said.
"Their eyes, the eyes, they light up, it's as though you have won the lottery for many of these girls when they walk away with the dresses that they love."
Peters' desire to help young women came from having her own role model, who helped send her on a path to college.
"She wore a college T-shirt and at the time, I had to be in the 8th grade or so, and I had no idea about college, no one necessarily in my family saying I had to go to college," Peters said. "I knew that I wanted not only to go to college, but I wanted to be someone that was able to give back to my community."
For Peters, the Prom Shop Project is about more than just prom night, but about building an encouraging environment for young girls to find women role models. The walls of the makeshift Prom Shops are covered with signs with inspirational phrases, like "Believe in Yourself" and "Girl Power!"
"I wanted to encourage them and motivate them that there were places -- beautiful places -- to stand tall and be beautiful," she said.
For more information on the Prom Shop Project or to make a donation, visit their website, www.promshopproject.com. To learn more about how to find prom dresses in your area, visit www.donatemydress.org.