As high school prom season approaches, Huong Nguyen found the perfect gown in less than 20 minutes Sunday, saving her precious time and a lot more.
"I like simple dresses, and it's really nice," said the 17-year-old senior from Oak Grove High School in San Jose. She held up the black, strapless satin gown and beamed. She chose it from among 2,000 dresses donated to the fifth annual Operation Prom Dress, a program that allows girls from low-income families in East San Jose to attend their proms in style and enjoy one of youth's most precious pleasures.
"I don't think I could attend without this free dress," Huong said, "because my parents have been unemployed for two years. I was getting irritated trying to find the money, so I was really happy to hear about this."
By 9 a.m., more than 700 girls had packed into the Seven Trees Community Center and waited their turn. Chosen randomly in groups of 10, each girl had 20 minutes to try on three dresses of her choice and select one.
What seemed like a format for noise and chaos, operated like a very good clock. The girls in the waiting room chatted quietly; a few worried about getting in at the end and missing out on the best dresses. Inside the selection room, volunteers hung the dresses on racks by size and color as the girls went through them quickly. Unlike some adults at department store fire sales, nobody fought over the merchandise or threw anything on the floor.
"During the economic recession, we heard from mothers who said, 'Is there a way you could help my girl buy a dress or something?' I couldn't do that without going broke."
Instead, Nguyen started her own version of Princess Project Silicon Valley, the South Bay's largest prom giveaway, which will have five giveaways in March. The Operation Prom gowns are donated by department stores and individuals, along with some tuxedo rentals and free dry cleaning services for used gowns.
Nguyen still owns and can probably still fit into the burgundy prom dress she bought with money earned picking fruit in Modesto during high school.
"The only thing I can't provide for you is a date," she told them. "You're on your own on that one."
One of the first girls through, Daisy Orellana, selected a bright orange and sequined gown, probably the loudest dress in the collection.
"It's my favorite color," the Milpitas High School student said, adding that her mother is disabled and her father, a restaurant kitchen helper, has not worked steadily in months. "I couldn't afford it on my own."
Saving the cost of gowns brings proms within financial reach. A trip to the hair salon, makeup, nail polish, shoes, prom tickets and dinner can easily total $200 or more. Throw in graduation expenses, and the last months of high school can tax low-income families dearly.
"What parent wants to tell their girl no?" said Kenya Dorsey, a home-health caregiver who showed up with her daughter Kenyatta, an 18-year-old senior at Piedmont Hills High School. "It can be disappointing for parents who can't afford that kind of money."
Kenyatta Dorsey chose an aquamarine, mermaid dress. Her best friend since elementary school, Michelle Lee, chose a shorter dress in the same color.
"As prom dresses go, it wasn't going to happen for me," Lee said, explaining that her disabled mother cannot work, and her father died years ago. "Now I have a dress, but the rest is going to be hand-me-downs from family and friends."
Many of the girls spoke candidly about financial hardship, a fact not lost on Councilwoman Nguyen.
"I worried about that when we started the program," she said. "I thought a lot of girls wouldn't show up because of the stigma of being poor."
Instead, the program has grown from 500 gowns given away the first year to 2,000 on Sunday, when the line to get in kept growing into the early afternoon.
Yajaira Chavez and Janet Diaz, two seniors from Mt. Pleasant High School, said their parents agreed reluctantly to let the girls accept the donated gowns.
"I guess they felt kind of pressured to get you that beautiful dress," Chavez said. "What's the word for it -- self-conscious? That could be it. As for the students, yeah, they feel bad about being poor, too."
But the two girls held their purple gowns and beamed, finding solidarity and moral support in the throng of giggling girls anticipating a glamorous night. They're going to the prom, after all. And after that, the two girls said, they're definitely going to college.
Contact Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767.