BELFAST, Maine — Hayley Corson, 18, of Gardiner had a pile of long, red and purple satin gowns to try on Friday evening before she settled on the perfect prom dress.
Perfection was the goal because the Gardiner Area High School senior is this year’s “Cinderella for a Day,” chosen by the Belfast-based Cinderella Project of Maine. Corson won because organizers said even though she’s faced a lot of adversity, she’s still the kind of person who cares enough about others to shave her hair at a school assembly in February to raise money to help fight children’s cancer.
“The main reason we chose Hayley is that she’s so involved in her community,” Mandie Sawyer, the chair of the project, said while putting finishing touches on the prom dress showroom. “I mean, come on. She has a shaved head. What 18-year-old does that?”
But even though Corson won’t be able to take advantage of the free updo offered as part of her prize package, she was thrilled to be the second-ever Cinderella chosen by the 9-year-old nonprofit, which has given more than 1,000 prom dresses to Maine teens over the years. Sawyer has said that prom dresses bought at stores easily can cost hundreds of dollars — which many teens and families simply can’t afford. That would have been the case for Corson, who said her father was laid off from his job at a central Maine call center just after Christmas.
After her mom, a drug and alcohol addict, left the family when Corson was little, her father has raised three children alone.
“My dad is my biggest hero,” she said. “Anything I can do to take stress off.”
She said that without winning the Cinderella prize, she would have had to choose between buying books for college next year or purchase a “really nice prom dress.”
Christina Riddle, an administrative assistant at Gardiner Area High School, drove Corson and her best friend, Julia Bustos, to Belfast to select the gown. She said that the assembly held to bring attention to children’s cancer was “emotional.”
“We wished we had brought a box of tissues,” Riddle said.
Many in the high school attended the assembly with fresh memories of a sixth-grade girl who died of cancer several years ago and were moved to contribute another $400 to the fundraiser.
“What amazed me most about that event was the support,” Corson said, adding that three other girls, five boys and two teachers also shaved their heads in solidarity with cancer patients. “People were crying. I was crying.”
Sawyer said that she asks the recipients of the dresses to pay their good fortune forward somehow.
“We don’t know what they’ll do, but we’re confident they’ll do something,” she said.
Last spring, the event brought hordes of excited teen girls to Renys Plaza, many of whom waited hours to have a first crack at the racks of elegant gowns — some sequined, some lacy, some long, some short. There’s even a dress that has been worn on the red carpet going to the Oscars, Sawyer said. A woman with Hollywood connections who vacationed in Maine saw information about the Cinderella Project, and donated a gorgeous, flapper-esque dress with a grecian bodice and elaborate beading to the cause.
“I love how it just brings people together,” Sawyer said of the project.