HUDSON — About 7:30 a.m., Julie Rockwell hits the road, dressed in business attire and driving a U-haul loaded with two racks of formal dresses and plastic bins filled with jewelry and high-heel shoes.
It's the third day of the Cinderella Project fall road trip, and after two days at Gulf High School in New Port Richey, Rockwell is destined for a drop-off at Fivay High before heading to her job at Raymond James.
Once at Fivay, she meets school social worker Tabitha Barron in a back parking lot to unload. With the help of a couple of student volunteers, they roll the racks down the school hallways to a theater dressing room, where Barron will set up shop.
After school lets out, when students come in to pick out an outfit, Rockwell will be back with more jewelry purchased at local stores, just to make sure everyone comes away with something to complete their look.
It's homecoming season, so most of the dresses are cocktail length or shorter. Come spring, Rockwell and her volunteers will tap into the 2,000 donated gowns stashed in a space donated by Storage World on State Road 52 and bring them to selected schools across the county.
Since the nonprofit organization was launched in 2005 by School Board member Alison Crumbley and Lori Weiss, the Cinderella Project has provided formal prom wear free of charge to well over 1,000 students in need. Rockwell, a longtime volunteer, took the project over about five years ago, mostly because she fell in love with watching the look on a girl's face and a mother's response upon finding the perfect dress.
"I have three boys, so I never got to experience it," she said. "Now I experience it every year."
Last year, after getting a call from Barron, who was seeing too many students opt out of homecoming because of the expense, Rockwell and fellow board members decided to expand their services. They sent invitations to all students in the community for homecoming shopping events at Gulf High and Fivay High.
In the past, Cinderella Project events were held on selected dates at donated storefronts in east and west Pasco. With an improving economy, empty storefronts are more difficult to find, Rockwell said, so now dresses and bling are brought to selected schools that put out an open invitation to all students in the community.
"It's a logistical nightmare," Rockwell said. But she's happy to do it.
"We've had students coming from various (public) schools and private schools. We had students come from PACE (Center for Girls), from JROTC for their military balls and even from the Joshua House," she said. "We just help whoever needs help."
While the school district picks up and delivers dresses to schools during prom season, Rockwell rents a truck to move the merchandise for homecoming events — thus her early morning jaunts.
"We all work. The volunteers all have to be screened (for the schools) ahead of time, so that can be a problem," she said, adding that, in deference to students who are in need of services, she does not use teen volunteers.
The project is a boon for students and their families, especially at Title 1 schools such as Fivay, where a large proportion of students are eligible for the federal free and reduced-price meals.
"It's about morale and confidence," said Barron, who also oversees the food pantry and clothes closet at Fivay. "Our students don't have the resources. If a student tells me they can't go to homecoming, I ask why. A lot of times it's, 'I don't have a dress.' "
About 40 students came away with homecoming dresses at the recent event at Gulf High, said assistant principal and Cinderella Project board member Laura Luter.
"We have students from all different backgrounds, and not everyone can afford elaborate gowns. It's really something to watch the girls positively light up when they find a dress that fits them perfectly and that they like," she said, adding that the event would not be possible without Rockwell and faculty volunteers such as Sharaya Janes, Ann Donlon, Elizabeth Diaz, principal Kim Davis and English teacher James Washington, who is a whiz at getting out stains.
The Cinderella Project is an especially well-needed resource this year, with the aftereffects of Hurricane Irma, said Fivay math teacher and volunteer Shannon Blackerby. "We had parents who went a week without pay, and then they had to throw all their food out because they lost power. It's just not the time for, 'Mom, Dad, I need a dress.' "
"When do they ever get a chance like this?" she said, beaming ear to ear, as about a dozen students and moms rummaged through the racks and tried on shoes. "It's wonderful. And the thing is, a lot of them will give it all back."
Contact Michele Miller at [email protected] Follow @MicheleMiller52.