CHEYENNE – Marie Town didn’t quite know what to expect when she arrived at Jean Richardson’s house earlier this month.
Town, a senior at East High School, was looking for a prom dress to wear to the big dance at Little America Hotel & Resort last weekend, but she needed to stick to her budget.
Richardson, who is known to her close friends and family as “the prom dress lady,” launched Project Prom here 15 years ago. The project helps young women find a stylish prom dress for no cost, though small donations are welcome.
She started the project because she noticed how expensive proms – which often require teenage girls to find money for a new formal dress, corsage, dinner, prom tickets and hair appointments – can get.
“If I can take away that main expense of the dress, and (students) can afford to pay for the other things, that’s cool,” Richardson said. “Maybe someone isn’t going because they couldn’t afford the whole package.”
She’s constantly scouring the sale racks at clothing stores and also accepts lightly used dresses, often from women who have already graduated and no longer need their prom gowns.
“I couldn’t do it without the community,” Richardson said, who noted that small businesses, like Just Dandy, have helped her collect some of the dress donations.
Pre-pandemic, Richardson would schlep her trove of dresses to a downtown storefront, where students could browse and try them on. Then, COVID-19 completely canceled prom last year. It’s back on for Cheyenne’s high schoolers this year, but because of the ongoing pandemic, Richardson set up shop in her basement and is requiring appointments.
She still remembers the anticipation surrounding her own high school prom experience. “Part of it was the shopping,” she said. “Project Prom wants to duplicate that as best as possible.”
It has not disappointed.
With more than 500 gowns, the bottom level of Richardson’s home on the north side of Cheyenne almost resembles a department store; it’s a sea of taffeta, silk and chiffon. Racks of dresses range in color, style and size, so “no one feels left out.”
That was a comfort to Town, who said she sometimes struggles to find clothes to fit her frame. After a few minutes of looking through the dresses, she found the perfect one: A navy number with a bedazzled bust.
When she put on the dress last Saturday night – after getting her hair and nails done – Town said she “felt like Cinderella.”
For her, senior prom represented a milestone.
“Neither of my parents finished school, so they never got to experience this,” she said. “And it’s like my grandma always says, it’s important to go out with a bang.”
Helping break down the barriers some young women might face in pursuit of their Cinderella moment is what’s kept Richardson’s Project Prom alive for all these years.
And while she wants to see it continue, she’s open to letting someone else in the community eventually take the reins.
“It’s getting to be a lot for me,” said Richardson, who is a retired dental hygienist looking forward to making more memories with her young grandchildren. “I’m ready to partner with someone, if anyone is interested in helping to manage the project.”