Krystal Hastings and Brittany Budden

Krystal Hastings, left, a fourth-year student at Howard Community College, and Brittany Budden, Director of Service Learning at the college, go through the prom dresses collected for The Perfect Prom Project. So far, 71 dresses have been collected. (Staff photo by Sarah Pastrana / February 19, 2013)

Last year, the average American family could expect to pay $1,078 for their child's prom, according to a survey from Visa. A collection drive at Howard Community College is aimed at reducing that cost for young area women, ensuring that they, too, can have a "perfect prom."

The Perfect Prom Project is being conducted through the college's Center for Service Learning and hospitality and management department. They hope to collect 100 gently used prom dresses by Friday, Feb. 22.

"With the economy being what it is, and the rising strain on families regardless of their economic class, everything is getting tighter across the board," said Brittany Budden, director of service learning at HCC. "This is an opportunity to engage HCC students, while helping ladies in the direct community to help make prom more affordable."

As of Tuesday, 71 dresses had been collected in bins across campus, and, Budden said, more were coming in from county high schools. While this is the second year for the project, it is the first time the college has partnered with Centennial, Glenelg and Mt. Hebron high schools to collect the dresses.

The college is also collecting formal dress shoes, purses and accessories, Budden said. Once the drive is complete, the hospitality and management students step in, planning a free-of-charge "shopping" day at the end of March and creating an on-campus "boutique."

Jody Fisher, assistant professor in the Center for Hospitality and Culinary Studies, said the shopping day was a good opportunity for the students to gain "real-world experience" in planning out and decorating a shopping area and creating menus for light refreshments

"There will be activities, too, all focused on making prom more affordable, like tips and tricks to doing your own hair and nails at home," Budden said. "The (HCC) students are completely responsible for coming up with these ideas."

The "shopping day" is a controlled environment, Budden said, with young women enjoying the activities in a common area, and picking out their dresses in a separate area in a much smaller group. Each high school student will be partnered with an HCC student acting as a kind of personal stylist to help them find the perfect dress.

Last year, HCC collected more than 200 dresses, and helped more than 30 high-school students (the leftover dresses went to similar projects at community colleges in the region, Budden said). This year, Budden said they were hoping to provide dresses for 50 students.

Through the Howard County Public School System, HCC works with guidance counselors in county high schoolers to identify young women "who can benefit" from the drive, Budden said. Guidance counselors are then given anywhere from four to seven invitations to give to the students for the event (though not all those invited accept, Budden said).

"We won't turn anyone away as long as there are dresses. We wait on the final number of dresses to determine how many ladies we can serve," Budden said. "Guidance counselors discreetly invite the ladies, and it's not always cut and dry situations — it's not always the students on free and reduced meals. Ladies (of all economic means) can use the support and opportunity."

Ultimately, Budden said, the drive is more of a celebration than a charity.

"Prom is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Budden said. "It's one of those coming-of-age moments, and we want to make sure that every person that wants to go to prom has that chance."

If interested in donating gently used prom dresses, contact the college's Center for Service Learning at 443-518-1885.