NORTHFIELD — Donna Carfora sifted through one of more than 20 racks of gowns Thursday looking for rips, tears and stains.
The ones that made the cut she pierced with a tagging gun and placed on a rack with similar sizes. The others will be donated.
Carfora was recruited last year to help organizer Rene Kane with her annual Project Prom giveaway, which donates gently used prom dresses to local teenage girls who may not be able to afford their own.
“It brings a tear to your eye,” said Carfora, of Ventnor, whose experience in retail has helped streamline the sorting process.
Inside Kensington Furniture on Tilton Road, in a storage room off the back of the showroom, 11 volunteers have been sorting, inspecting and tagging more than 1,000 dresses in preparation for the big day in April when they expect to help at least 500 area girls.
Kensington has been a partner for the event, letting Kane store dresses there year-round and transforming the back room into a mini dress shop each spring.
The idea behind Project Prom is to relieve some of the costs associated with the annual high school formal dance, for which new dresses can cost hundreds of dollars. In addition to recycled dresses, area retailers also donate to the event.
“There’s so many unused prom dresses. It’s crazy for people to have their prom dresses sit in their closets for five, 10, 15 years if they’re not going to wear it. Pass the memory on if they can,” said Kane, a realtor from Margate.
Kane pointed out that the cost of the dress is only a portion of the total expenses for prom, which includes the ticket, shoes, accessories, hair and nails, and for some, a limousine.
“The whole event is extremely costly for a family,” she said.
With the help of the Boys and Girls Club of Atlantic City, Kane revived Project Prom in 2016 after it went dormant for a few years.
“It was the most rewarding volunteer experience I’ve ever had,” she said.
She said the giveaway days are intended to create a boutique-like feel for the teens, who may have never had a personalized shopping experience.
The array of dresses collected this year was astonishing: from cocktail to black tie, some with intricate beading and others with glamorous sparkles, in all cuts and fabrics from lace to silk to chiffon to satin.
Through the three days of the event, teens get a number and are called back in small groups, with a dressing room and an attendant to help them find the right gown and accessories.
Carfora said some of the girls who come in have never worn a dress before, others are unsure of their size or style, and some are embarrassed that they cannot afford a dress. After they find the right one, that apprehension changes, she said.
“And they go out of here with a whole new face. There’s joy,” Carfora said.
Kane said it’s not just the joy of the teens, but the parents and guardians, too.
“The mothers thank us, and thank us and cry. And tell us they wouldn’t be able to send their daughters to prom,” she said.
Project Prom is free and open to all students in Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties with a school identification card, regardless of income.