Atholton High School senior Ellen Barth originally intended Project PROMise to be a one-day opportunity for high school students to buy low-priced prom dresses on consignment in the school's gym, with some proceeds going toward community nonprofits.
Since then, Ellen's idea has blossomed into a biannual project operating for stretches of one month or longer out of a Rouse Co.-owned village center, a venture the Hickory Ridge village resident hopes will continue after she graduates.
The consignment shop will be selling dresses for homecoming dances for between $5 and $50 out of donated space in the Hickory Ridge Village Center, next to Domino's Pizza, on weekends and on Tuesdays and Thursdays through the end of this month.
Project PROMise will send 30 percent of the proceeds from sales of dresses on consignment, and 100 percent of proceeds from sales of donated dresses, to Grassroots -- which runs a homeless shelter and crisis intervention service -- and the Domestic Violence Center of Howard County.
Ellen says she started the project as a way to address two problems -- the high cost of seldom-worn prom dresses and community needs.
"You buy a prom dress, wear it once, then it sits in the closet. It's a sad thing," says Ellen, 17. "It costs $150 or more, and there are people who don't have clothes to wear or food to eat. Through this project, these two problems could be put together."
Last spring, Project PROMise raised nearly $3,000 for the nonprofits, and sold about 300 dresses totaling $9,000 from space in the Wilde Lake Village Center.
The Domestic Violence Center used about $1,500 in donations for food and clothing for women in the emergency shelter, says executive director Stephanie Sites.
"I think it's wonderful," says Ms. Sites. "It shows me that not only is the adult community interested in helping the community and others in need, but that it's filtering down to high school students and hopefully to middle schools and elementary schools. It's building a community spirit of helping others."
The financial help is considered "a major donation," says Ms. Sites.
"So many of our fund-raisers are very labor-intensive on our part," she says. "It takes away time from our clients. To have someone else do all the work is wonderful."
Andrea Ingram, executive director of Grassroots, says she's not only impressed with the contribution from Project PROMise, but with how the money is raised and the students' confidence and experience.
"They're running a business and they're doing a tremendous job," says Ms. Ingram, who has helped out on the weekend. "It's really a unique idea. There are so many winners."
The project won a first place award from the International Council of Shopping Centers Friday in New York in the community service category, says Elizabeth Buckley, marketing manager for Columbia Management Inc., who entered the project in the competition.
Columbia Management, a Rouse Co. subsidiary that operates Columbia shopping centers, makes it possible for Project PROMise to turn a profit by donating retail space and supplies and services such as marketing and maintenance.
The management company originally was contacted just for storage space.
Ms. Buckley calls the project "an excellent example of today's youth being responsible to their parents, their pocketbooks and needs in the community."
About 40 students from the county's eight high schools work in the shop. Student store managers report to Ellen, who receives school credit through the mentor program by working with Columbia Management.
Ellen also sings in Atholton High's Madrigals group, is vice president of the school's National Honor Society, plays on the tennis team and serves on the Student Human Relations Committee.
She says she's "learned a ton" about banking, retail, marketing and organization by working on Project PROMise. "It takes a lot of organization to handle this and school," she says.
The Hickory Ridge Village Center is at Freetown Road and Cedar Lane. Shop hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays, and 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays through Oct. 31.