Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

KPBS Evening Edition

San Diego Students Get Ready For Prom In Donated Dresses

Madison High School senior Sequoia Booker and her mother check out the prom dresses collected by the Princess Project.
Katie Schoolov
Madison High School senior Sequoia Booker and her mother check out the prom dresses collected by the Princess Project.
Free Dresses Make Prom Affordable for Local Teens

Sequoia Booker’s prom plans are a little complicated.

“I'm going to go to my friend's prom, and then I'm going to invite another friend to go with me, because she goes to charter, so she doesn't really have prom, and I want her to have that experience,” said the senior at Madison High School.

Got that? It sounds intricate, but Sequoia isn’t sweating it.


“It's not that hard,” she said.

Harder is Sequoia’s family situation.

“There's six of us, it's just my mom, my dad lives in Chicago," she said. "It's my mom and she has rent and all these other things to pay, plus senior year has come and I have to buy my cap and gown, have to buy yearbooks and all these other things, and it's just eating away our pockets.”

The final months of high school are meant to be a special time for seniors. Rituals like graduation, yearbook and prom mark the passage from one phase of life to the next. But they also bring lots of added costs.

One of those big expenses is prom dresses.


With the average cost of prom at more than $1,100, attending the dance can seriously hurt a family’s bank account. Prom dress donation groups across the country work to help cushion the blow.

The Princess Project first started in San Francisco and came to San Diego five years ago. It collects donated formal dresses and gives them out to high school seniors like Sequoia for free.

Sequoia plans to spend about $200 at prom for things like a ticket and dinner beforehand. But, she said, wearing a donated dress makes the whole event a lot more affordable.

“It would just probably take a little longer, more saving up," she said of buying a dress. "It would just be a longer, harder process.”

Girls don’t have to prove they come from low-income families to get a dress through Princess Project. But foster homes, homeless shelters, teachers or guidance counselors usually refer them.

Jennifer Gaston, the chair of the San Diego chapter, said giving out prom dresses is an easy way to help students.

“Prom is definitely a coming out ceremony in America, and I think once they have a dress and they really feel beautiful and they feel more like a woman," she said. "Then you kind of see them stand up straighter and pull their shoulders back and really kind of sink in to, ‘yeah I am beautiful and yeah I am growing up.’”

The Princess Project experience is designed to mimic real dress shopping. That’s usually a memorable time for girls attending prom.

“As they're trying on dresses, we're really, really positive about making them feel beautiful, making them feel comfortable, telling them how special they look and how amazing the colors are on them and all of that," Gaston said. "It's a real big confidence booster even though it's a little snapshot of time.”

One windy late afternoon, Sequoia walks to the Princess Project store in the Horton Plaza mall with three of her good friends. All the girls are serious students with college in their futures. But they are slightly giddy as they wait to try on dresses.

Volunteers measure the girls and help them look for dresses. Although this is often a mother-daughter tradition, most girls are alone. Only Sequoia has her mother as company.

Sequoia’s friend Karen Patterson, who will be her prom date, finds her dress first. Then she finds another, and another, and another. After trying on a long series of dresses, she settles on her first love: a short hot pink dress with a ruffled rose in the front.

Sequoia Booker finds a prom dress at the Princess Project location in Horton Plaza in May 2013.
Katie Schoolov
Sequoia Booker finds a prom dress at the Princess Project location in Horton Plaza in May 2013.

One girl after another waltzes out of the dressing rooms in a dress she loves. Only Sequoia is still left looking.

Finally, Sequoia’s volunteer brings her a bright blue sparkly dress. It seems to be “the one.”

To complete the full princess experience, the girls also get to pick out a piece of jewelry and get their makeup done. Their spirits are high by the time they’re done.

“I'm, like, ready to go now," Karen said. "If I could go today, I would totally go today.”

It might seem silly to focus a charity on a dress these girls will likely only wear once. But Sequoia said it’s not just about the dress.

“It's part of growing up, I feel like," she said. "It's just another experience where you're able to just look back and say 'wow, I've come this far and I'm going to graduate.' It's just another celebration just for seniors to say you did it and you get to look back and have it with your friends and it's just a fun night for everybody.”