BRIDGTON, Maine — The curtain on the makeshift changing stall slowly parted, revealing a stunned teenager in a close-fitting, seafoam green gown with bare shoulders and a large flower at the waist.
Their eyes were wide, skeptical, staring into a full-length mirror across the room.
Lacy Snell wasted no time.
“You look amazing,” Snell shrieked, stretching the last word into three syllables.
The apprehensive teenager then broke into a grin, their tense shoulders dropping, angst melting away into something like confidence.
Suddenly, they were in front of the looking glass, spinning, getting a closer look at their first formal dress.
This is what Snell and the other volunteers at the Maine Event Prom Project do every day. They make people look and feel good.
The nonprofit provides gently used formal gowns for proms and spring formals at low — or zero — cost at annual pop-up events around Bridgton. This year, for three weeks only, they’ve set up nearly 1,000 dresees at the town skating rink.
“I want people to look at themselves and see what they feel on the inside — beautiful,” said Erin Bradley, who was volunteering with Snell on Tuesday.
Open by appointment, the Project has served hundreds of prom-goers since its founding in 2013. This year, after two years with no proms due to the pandemic, it has seen a flood of dress-seekers from Bridgton and surrounding towns including Oxford, Turner, Brunswick and Freeport.
On Tuesday afternoon, three young people, their mothers in tow, perused the donated gowns.
On arrival, Snell handed each one a pink clothes basket and told them to pick as many dresses off the racks as they wanted.
“Remember, they’re all just shapeless bags until you put them on,” she said. “Pick as many as you want.”
The teenager in the seafoam dress decided it was a definite possibility but wanted to try on a few more.
“I’m sorry,” they said. “I’m so indecisive.”
“No, no, honey,” Bradley said. “Take your time. It’s OK.”
Also looking through the racks of dresses, all organized by color, was homeschooler Mia Macdonald, 15.
“No, that’s too red,” Macdonald said to her mother, Christine O’Connor, as she held up one she liked.
Macdonald, who had a spring formal coming up, said she wanted one in a darker color that went all the way to the floor.
“Something super sparkly,” she said.
Left to right, Christine O’Connor, holding 7-month-old daughter Olivia, helps her eldest child, Mia Macdonald, 15, pick out a potential formal dance dress at the Maine Event Prom Project in Bridgton on Tuesday, May 10, 2022. Mia Macdonald, 15, looks in the mirror while trying on gowns at the Maine Event Prom Project in Bridgton on Tuesday, May 10, 2022. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
Nearly 20 changes of clothes later, the mother and daughter found the perfect dress. It was shimmering, dark burgundy.
“We got one,” O’Connor shouted in victory.
Both were all smiles.
It’s the kind of scene that keeps Snell and Bradley motivated. Both are working mothers who manage to squeeze the Project into their busy lives because it’s important to them.
Snell still chokes up remembering her own junior prom dress.
“It cost $250 and my mother had to use a credit card,” she said. “My mother was a waitress and I felt horribly guilty — I still do.”
Bradley didn’t go to a prom but said she grew up poor, her mother making much of her clothing.
She said she understands how much pressure girls are under to look perfect on prom night. Bradley hopes the Project can connect girls with dresses that make them feel confident without a financial barrier getting in the way.
The suggested donation for each dress is $25.
“But if they don’t have it, they can walk away with the dress for free,” Snell said.
Some patrons pay more than the minimum. One mother left a $75 check on Tuesday, paying it forward to the next person.
“This is awesome,” said another mother, as her teen tried on dresses. “My child came home the other day and said they’d been invited to the prom, so we came here. There’s so many people who can’t afford this — and you only wear it once.”
Snell and Bradley said the Project is a place where everyone of every size and shape is welcome, and also stressed they are LGBTQ friendly.
“We’re here for anyone who wants to wear a dress,” Snell said. “Anyone.”
Eventually, the Project hopes to branch out into tuxedos as well, and possibly start an underwriting program where members of the public can sponsor individual teens.
But there are other concerns to tackle first, including the year-round search for current, in-style gowns.
The biggest obstacle of all is space. The Project has no permanent home. When it closes for the year on Saturday, Snell isn’t sure where they will store their stock.
“Probably my garage,” she said. “But we’d love it if someone could donate some storage space.”
But that problem will wait. There’s still lots of work to do, matching teenagers with perfect dresses for this prom season.
“Oh my God, you look so beautiful,” one dress-shopper said to another as they shared a mirror on Tuesday.
“You do, too,” the other replied.
Snell smiled, getting a little emotional.
“We want everyone to leave here feeling beautiful,” she said.
To make a shopping appointment at the Maine Event Prom Project, or to donate, call 207-557-2261 or visit their Facebook page.