Daja Dorsey had a list of things she was looking for in the perfect prom dress. And as the senior at Baltimore's Coppin Academy High School perused racks of dresses Saturday, looking for something short and sparkly, she was relieved to have at least one thing crossed off: an affordable price tag.
Dorsey walked away from the Baltimore Teachers Union headquarters — where high school seniors were invited to come shop through donated formal wear — with a shimmering, strapless, champagne-and-ivory gown.
The dress was free, and she left with a weight off her shoulders. A prom can add up to a $2,000 night out, so Dorsey and many of her classmates have been fretting for weeks about how they would pay for it all.
"Prom is stressful," Dorsey said. "I didn't want to spend a lot for one night. Everyone wants to be different. I just want to be pretty."
The teachers union held its first annual "Prom Giveaway" for local seniors. The union will continue to offer free dresses to girls through prom season.
"The prom is one of the greatest highlights of a student's high school years," Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said in a statement. "But we know expense can be a hindrance or a burden. They shouldn't miss the opportunity to attend such a memorable event because of limited resources."
Students said Saturday that they worry about whether their financial hardships will be on display during prom – whether it be in what they wear or how they arrive.
"People just have a hard time around prom season anyway, because it's a time that you see so much that you want that you might not be able to have," said Jasmine Farmer, another Coppin Academy senior who accompanied Dorsey to try on dresses.
"There are people I know right now who should be here, but aren't because of pride or can't get over here."
Farmer works while attending school and has lived on her own since her mother died when she was 15. She said she's felt every penny spent on her $100.04 dress from Macy's and the near $400 she spent in class dues.
Though she came just to help Dorsey pick out a dress, Farmer left with a pair of nude high heels as well.
The girls pointed out there are two other events — farewell ceremony and graduation — that also require dresses and have a strict dress code. The events, including prom, are also three Fridays in a row.
It takes a family effort to finance a senior, said Catherine Berry, also a senior at Coppin Academy.
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Her sister paid for her nearly $400 dress. Her mother and brother split her class dues. And her mother will pay for her graduation dress.
"My family really came together because my mother had to pay bills," she said. "It seemed like every time something came up, a bill was due."
Carolyn Jones, co-chairwoman of the union's Public Outreach and Community Relations Committee, said she met girls over the weekend who were attending two or three proms. Jones said she could plainly see relief on the faces of parents who found they had one fewer dress to buy.
"It makes you feel good that there are people out there you can help," Jones said. "Even if we want to help five or 10 people, we have succeeded."
Dorsey said that when she attends Coppin's prom on May 16, her dress will communicate how she feels: "Happy."