High school senior Sunderiya Ganbold had a problem.
She didn’t own a dress, any dress, and now she needed not just any dress, but the dress – the one she would remember fondly for the rest of her life.
She needed a prom dress.
As she walked into an otherwise vacant storefront on San Francisco’s Market Street on Sunday, nearly 6,000 formal dresses hung on racks in front of her – dresses in yellow, green, pink, silver, gold, light blue, dark blue and every shade of blue in between.
Rhinestones shimmering, they ranged in size from a very petite double zero to a voluptuous 32.
And every one of them was free.
Every year since 2002, the San Francisco nonprofit Princess Project has been giving away prom dresses to girls from across the Bay Area, with about 15,000 teenagers taking advantage of the giveaways.
This year, organizers and volunteers hope to send nearly 2,000 girls home with the dress.
The organization’s motto is simple: “Making dreams real – with time, talent & taffeta.”
“Every girl wants to look and feel beautiful and confident on her prom night, but a formal prom dress can easily top $200 these days, and some girls can’t afford to participate,” said Katie Zimmerman, president of the Princess Project.
On Saturday, the first Bay Area giveaway day this year, 530 girls got dresses, necklaces, bracelets, tiaras, earrings and purses. They came alone, with mom or in giggling groups from as far away as Sacramento, lining up as early as 4 a.m. to get the first pick off the racks.
The only requirement was to show a valid high school student identification card. Financial need was also required, but that was on the honor system.
“It’s really kind of sad to see how that need has expanded,” said Meredith MacNeill, vice president of the project’s board, referring to the down economy.
Yet something as simple as a ball gown can significantly boost a teen’s self-esteem.
“It brought tears to my eyes when a mom said she hadn’t seen her daughter smile that big in years,” MacNeill said.
These days, a prom can be costly, with single tickets reaching $70 or more. Add hair, nails, makeup and dinner, and the tab can be several hundred dollars. While some of that stuff is optional, every girl needs something to wear.
A pair of 17-year-olds from Vallejo, Deja Lee and her friend Nicole Richardson, were among those who found dresses Sunday. Deja scored within minutes, selecting a sparkly blue short dress.
“I couldn’t take it off,” she said. “It’s kind of unbelievable, like a dream.”
The Princess Project started small nine years ago, when organizers realized some girls had to skip their prom because they couldn’t afford a dress. It has grown since, reaching out to girls in the Bay Area and San Diego, with hundreds of volunteers staffing giveaways and helping collect dresses throughout the year.
Sunderiya – pronounced a bit like Cinderella – heard about this year’s event from a friend.
She doesn’t have a date for Washington High School’s prom in May. Like a lot of teenagers these days, she wanted to attend with a group of friends.
While the date was optional, the dress wasn’t.
She sifted through the racks, picking three to try on: a peachy gown with rhinestones, a black cocktail dress and a taupe Mori Lee taffeta halter dress with a pickup skirt and a black velvet belt.
The latter had never been worn, with tags still hanging from the seam. It fit perfectly.
“I love it,” Sunderiya said, smiling.
Less than an hour after she walked in, she stepped back onto Market Street owning a dress, but not just any dress.
A prom dress.