Rows and rows of prom dresses, organized by color and size, form a runway of fabric leading toward the dressing rooms. From there, a white fur carpet decorates the path to the accessories table — a raised platform with a picturesque vanity adorned with hanging lights.
What otherwise would have been an empty building in a strip mall in Cupertino — with concrete floors, grey walls and red steel pipes running along the ceiling — is transformed into a dazzling showcase of dresses.
“It looks kind of like there are dresses flying through the air,” says Maria Insalaco, secretary of the Princess Project Silicon Valley.
Started 15 years ago by a group of women who saw a need in their own community, the Princess Project is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing prom dresses to high schoolers who cannot otherwise afford them. The team has since expanded to include chapters in San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Sonoma and San Diego, and will soon come to Los Angeles. Last year, the organization was able to provide free service to 1,200 girls and has 1,500 sign-ups so far this year.
Run entirely by volunteers determined to give students the full prom experience, Princess Project organizes dress giveaways annually in the month of March.
“We set this whole thing up every year, and then we pack it all away,” says Shirley McFaden, a longtime Princess Project volunteer.
While 75 percent of the 7,000 dresses are donated by local sponsors and partnerships with large companies such as Trudy’s Brides & Special Occasion and Azazie, the organization also welcomes individual donations. Donated dresses that are too casual for prom are sold as fundraisers for the next year’s stock.
To receive a dress from the Princess Project, students book an appointment online and sign up for one of the giveaway dates. When they arrive on site, they are asked only to provide a school-issued student ID.
“We don’t want to put any hurdles on coming here,” Insalaco says. “Folks shouldn’t feel like they have to have a special reason or special paperwork to get in. We trust them, and if they think that prom is prohibitive or hard to afford, they’re welcome here … We have plenty of dresses here and we’re happy to share.”
From Hayward to Gilroy
Browsing through the donated dresses at the March 7 open house are Martha and Elizabeth Cabrera, who are both involved in reaching out to students at their schools in East Side Union High School District.
As the community liason at Oak Grove High School, Cabrera makes sure to inform her students about the services of the Princess Project which is consitently met with excitement. According to Cabrera, many of her students attend the giveaways in groups and come back encouraging their classmates to make an appointment.
“We have a lot of students that can’t afford a dress … It’s expensive,” Cabrera says. “It’s important that these students are not missing the experience of being a high schooler because they don’t have the economic situation where they can afford a dress.”
A dream come true
Volunteers, who call themselves “fairy godmothers,” take groups of no more than three girls at a time into the maze of options to search for the perfect look. Volunteers are all out of high school to ensure the confidentiality of the participants.
“We want to make sure they’re not running into someone, as a volunteer, that they might go to school with,” Insasco says.
This year’s President, Kristen Hahn, explains that the nonprofit aims to provide an unforgettable experience for teens.
“I think back now about my prom, and I had an amazing experience,” Hahn says. “You want to ensure it’s available to all girls … As much as you give, you get 10 times back. ”
According to Hahn, his experience includes the uplifting environment as well, and the messages written with black markers on the mirrors in and outside the dressing rooms reflect the Princess Project’s mission of promoting self-confidence. “I am strong,” one reads.
“No matter how they identify themselves, we accept everyone from every race, every religion, every part of anywhere,” Hahn says. “We just want everyone to feel welcome and more importantly, safe and beautiful here.”