RUSKIN — Before Andria Ward could explain why the gaggle of girls had gathered in the high school media room, several of the attendees had already tuned her out. They were looking at ball gowns. Dozens of them.
Misty Carpenter's mom spied one before her daughter did.
"Misty, look," she whispered to the 17-year-old, pointing at the peach, floor-length sleeveless gown. It would go perfectly with her daughter's pale skin, she thought.
About 50 high school seniors, their mothers and grandmothers were about to take part in the Cinderella Project, a program that provides free new and gently used prom dresses, accessories and shoes to needy teens.
Sponsored by the Hillsborough Association for Women Lawyers and the Tampa Club, the event took place last week at Lennard High School. Organizers chose participants based on their grades, behavior and financial need. In a year when many parents have lost their jobs, the donations offset what can amount to hundreds of dollars in satin, jewelry and heels.
"We're happy to lighten the load for everyone," Ward, the school's education career specialist, announced to the crowd before setting them loose.
"We don't want this to be the bridal affair you see on TV," Ward added. "Don't fight over the dresses."
The girls rushed to the dresses, almost 300 in all.
As some girls stood back, indecisive, Misty took the peach dress and made a beeline for one of the changing rooms. The new David's Bridal gown with a faux diamond pendant fit perfectly.
The price tag read $150. Both mother and daughter beamed at the thought of getting it for free.
Misty's father, a heavy-equipment operator, was laid off about a year ago. Her mother, Susan White, also lost her job doing office work. She has seasonal employment selling strawberry shakes at Goodson Farms. That job will likely end by April, White said.
The timing, she said, is awful, just when her daughter reaches her senior year and is about to pass through several expensive milestones.
Aside from the prom dress and accessories, there are the $80 prom tickets, the $80 yearbook and outings for high school seniors at theme parks in Orlando. The family also has to buy a cap and gown and plan a graduation party.
Until the girls found out about the Cinderella Project, Misty was going to search for a prom gown at Goodwill. Her mother had another idea.
"I was going to make her boyfriend do the buying," White said, laughing.
Several of the other girls at Lennard High said they had planned to visit consignment shops or discount stores for their May 16 prom.
"This is a really big help," said Doreida Aguilar, 17, of Wimauma. Her mother and stepfather work in the fields, but this year, her mother is jobless.
And there are other complications. Doreida usually migrates every summer with her family to pick apples in Michigan. But she stayed in Wimauma last summer to focus on her school work. That decision cost her financial assistance from the federally backed migrant program.
Her mother has been setting aside little bits of cash for Doreida's graduation expenses. But a new prom dress was not in the budget.
"My mom doesn't like wasting $200 on a dress," Doreida said. "The most my mom spends on a dress is $30. I go to Ross every Saturday and Sunday to see what they have."
Doreida, who plans to attend Hillsborough Community College in the fall, looked ruefully at a white and black strapless gown with stiff chiffon and black velvet leaves.
"I really wanted that one," she said.
But the aspiring police officer couldn't get it zipped all the way up.
As other girls took pictures of each other and slipped out of changing rooms in gowns and flip-flops to twirl before a mirror, Doreida plowed into the stack once more. She tried another dress, but it didn't fit, either. So she returned to the black-and-white favorite.
One of the teachers told her that the sponsors were providing alteration services for free. With this piece of good news, Doreida turned her attention to the shoes. Her friends crowded around her as she slipped her foot into a black heel.
"Your feet are too fat for that, baby," one friend offered.
Undaunted, Doreida grabbed a different pair of pumps and slipped them on. Someone cooed. They'd go great with the dress, another friend said. Her Cinderella makeover was almost complete. Now, all she needs are accessories.
Saundra Amrhein can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2441.