Charla Cummings browsed the racks at countless shops and searched Web sites for the perfect prom dress.
Cummings, 18, a Richland High School senior, fell in love with a long black and teal gown, but after being laid off from her part-time job at a frozen custard joint, the $200 price was out of her reach.
So when she heard about a prom dress donation program for the Birdville school district, she knew she had to check it out. After scouring rack after rack, Cummings spotted it: a long, fitted black and white gown with a swirl pattern that resembled her perfect retail dress.
"A $200 dress wasn't in my parents' budget or mine," she said. "It's such a relief to find a dress I love for free."
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As the economy continues to shed jobs and raises remain rare, luxuries like pricey prom dresses have slipped out of reach for many high school students. Realizing the need, Janie Wood, 72, of Richland Hills, started collecting prom dresses last year to give to high school girls and families who need help.
Wood hopes to expand the program to the rest of Tarrant County next year.
Wood hit up friends, neighbors, strangers, local stores and area universities for new and gently used dresses. Short. Long. Black. Blue. Red. Gold. Spaghetti straps. No straps. Full-bodied. Slinky.
Wood remembers her own prom years ago, and she remembers her dress: a hunter green fishtail gown that fit as if it had been made for her.
"I have never forgotten that dress," she said. "I want these girls to have the same thing. I want them to look as pretty as can be, and I want them to know how good they look."
At a vacant storefront Saturday in Richland Hills, high school girls and their mothers searched the racks of some 500 dresses for that unforgettable gown.
Carrying a handful of colorful dresses, Kristi Lucas of North Richland Hills followed daughter Natalie from rack to rack. With five children, including a set of triplets, items like clothing rank low on the priority list. Buying a prom dress would have been out of the question.
"You want your daughter to be able to go to her prom and have fun without worrying about money," Kristi Lucas said. "I don't know what we would have done without this."
Rachel Jenkins, a Birdville High School senior, said she is thrilled about her prom but was stressed by the idea of buying a prom dress. Her mom, Amy, said the donation program surprised her.
The moment Jenkins zipped up her dress, she knew it was the one. The never-worn dress fit perfectly and shone with tiny blue, gold and brown sparkles. It still had a $179 price tag.
"You look forward to prom all of high school, getting to dress up with all of your friends," Jenkins said. "But who can afford several hundred dollars for a dress you wear once?"
These days, few can, said Adele Kennedy, an assistant principal at Richland High School. More kids chip in on one limousine; even more drive their own cars and forgo the luxury vehicle entirely. And secondhand dresses have become more popular.
Richland High also collects dresses for needy students, and more girls have opted for that route in the last couple of years.
"Some kids just cannot afford extras like prom dresses," Kennedy said. "We want everyone to have the opportunity to go to prom, look beautiful and feel good about themselves. They deserve a memorable night."