Call it a taffeta line — crowds of teenage girls and their mothers start lining up outside the Princess Project storefront every year in the early morning chill, waiting patiently for the chance to make that classic high school dream come true. Some girls may dream of being Prom Queen or the Cinderella of Senior Ball. For others — particularly in this fraught economic climate — it's a feat just to get in the door.

Most high schools offer free or low cost prom tickets to students in financial need but, as every fairy-tale fan knows all too well, you can't go to the ball in rags "... or street clothes. Hence, the Bay Area's Princess Project, which has spent the last seven years making prom a reality for more than 9,000 underprivileged teenage girls. Each winter, they collect gently used formal gowns, most worn just once, from teens around the Bay. And each March, they distribute the dresses to young women at sites in Oakland, San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

"It's awesome," says Princess Project board member Quinn Donnelly. "Rows of sparkly dresses that anyone would be proud to wear. It's like a taffeta dream."

Donnelly's first encounter with the Princess Project was as a volunteer, a new college graduate filling time after returning home to Lafayette four years ago. She walked into the Princess Project, ready to hand out prom dresses, and encountered something unexpectedly fulfilling.

"It was overwhelming in a really positive way," the Benefit Cosmetics e-commerce producer says. "They were all there for very different reasons, really diverse. It's amazing how happy a simple dress can make you. These girls were so happy and the moms were crying. I saw what an impact it had, and I've never looked back."

Volunteers do outreach to specific schools and communities, where they know the financial need is great, but they welcome any girl who lacks the means to go to prom. Some schools, including San Jose's Willow Glen High School where 47 percent of the students qualify for free lunch programs, send a busload of girls.

Princess Project staffers are particularly gratified by the thank-you notes they get from girls, thanking them for "the best night of my life" and offering to volunteer after graduation, and from school administrators who brought their young charges to pick out dresses.

"All the girls were so excited," wrote Willow Glen's Carmen Mahood, "that they sang and told stories all the way back to San Jose on the bus. You were all wonderful to us."

The only thing required for entry is a girl and a valid high school ID. Girls may bring a female shopping buddy, a relative or friend. No adults are allowed entry without a teen.

And there's no need to prove financial need, says Donnelly, "We trust the girls."

Of course, the Princess Project is not the only one making dreams come true. VESTIA, Contra Costa County family service's volunteer emergency services team, does something similar for foster kids. Foster families typically provide room and board for their young charges, but it's a rare foster parent who foots the bill for those classic extras of high school — senior portraits, caps and gowns for graduation, yearbooks and a tuxedo or gown for Senior Ball or prom.

VESTIA, a partner in the Times and Trib's annual school backpack drive, funds those senior year extras with generous support from individuals, foundations and volunteer organizations such as the Junior League of Oakland and the East Bay, and the Diablo Valley Assistance League.

"We really look to normalizing these kids' lives," says VESTIA coordinator Anne Struthers, "and giving them the opportunity to experience what other kids in the community do."

Reach Jackie Burrell at jburrell@bayareanewsgroup.com.

Prom Princess
  • The Princess Project: Provides free prom dresses and accessories to teenage girls whose families suffer financial problems. The project's Oakland site is doing a prom dress giveaway for small groups of 10 or more from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, and for individuals from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 21 at 2201 Broadway St. Giveaways are also scheduled from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 28 at San Francisco's Embarcadero 4. The line begins forming at 7 a.m. Girls may bring one female guest, a parent or friend, to help shop. No adults admitted without a girl. Bring a valid Bay Area high school student body card -- if your school does not issue ID cards, bring a recent report card or official documentation and picture ID. For further details, visit www.princessproject.org.
  • Vestia Foster Kids Project: Provides free tuxedo rentals, prom tickets and other senior year extras to teens in Contra Costa County's foster care system with donations from foundations and individuals. Foster teens interested in participating should talk with their social worker. Readers interested in contributing can call VESTIA at 925-521-5062 or mail a tax-deductible donation to VESTIA, 400 Ellinwood Way, Pleasant Hill, 94523.
  • PROM CONSIGNMENT SHOPS: Not financially strapped, but still looking for ways to cut prom costs? Most second hand and consignment stores stock at least a few formal gowns, but a group of Brentwood high school girls just opened Sparkles, a prom-centric consignment shop at 1280 Central Blvd., Suite 1, in Brentwood. Open Friday through Sunday, now through April 18. Call 925-240-0273 for information and hours.