BELFAST, Maine — By 7:30 a.m. Saturday hundreds of teenage girls stood in an antsy line near the local Renys, waiting and hoping to find the perfect, free prom dress.
Friends Mariah, Shawna and Hannah were first in line. They got there at 7 a.m. The doors didn’t open to the Cinderella Project’s sixth annual prom dress giveaway until 8 a.m.
“We’ve been staring at [the doors] for an hour,” said 16-year-old Shawna Dakin of Searsport.
She and her two girlfriends knew exactly which dresses would leave with them. Mariah Hustus, 18, of Searsport was going to take a blue animal print gown with rhinestones across the waist — for sure.
But before she could snatch it off the headless mannequin that stood in what a day before had been an empty storefront, organizers of the event had to lay down some ground rules about how many girls were allowed in at a time and how many dresses were allowed in the dressing room at one time.
“This is the biggest turnout we’ve ever had. I’m so happy,” organizer Mandie Sawyer yelled to the line on Saturday morning. The Cinderella Project aims to give gowns to any girl who needs one for a prom, free. The project takes donations at drop-off sites around the state all year and then gives them all away in April.
By 8 a.m. dozens of girls flooded in to pick through a dozen racks of gowns.
Volunteer Amber Reynolds of Morrill braced by the dressing room, enforcing the strict two-dresses-per-girl rule. Saturday marked her third year volunteering for the project.
“I wish I had this when I was in high school. Dresses are so expensive. I think it’s great all these girls get the opportunity to go to prom,” Reynolds said. “Some of these girls can’t afford a dress. High school is all about how you look, and if they don’t have a dress they won’t go.”
The project asks the girls to bring the dresses back to give away again the next year. Reynolds spotted a puffy light blue dress in the line.
“That dress has been here for years,” she said. The girls just keep wearing it and bringing it back.
Not 30 minutes after the doors opened friends Mariah Hustus and Hannah Betit, 17, of Belfast had their dresses wrapped in plastic and ready to take home. But the blue animal print wasn’t in Hustus’ hand, as she’d said it would be. It was hanging from Betit’s arm.
“We switched,” Hustus said. Before the two girls had entered the dressing room, they’d fallen in love with each other’s gowns.
Hustus took home a blue ball gown.
“I was hoping to find one because it’s my senior prom and I wanted a ball gown,” Hustus said.
As the friends walked out, mother Monique Whitcomb of Belfast shuffled through some dresses as she waited for her 17-year-old daughter, Kendra Kirby, to come out of the dressing room.
“It’s a great program,” Whitcomb said. “The dresses are only worn once — they’re virtually brand-new.”
After a minute, her daughter stepped out of the fitting room in a long, gray gown.
“You look like Cinderella, honey.”