BLOOMINGTON, Ill. (AP) — Four years ago, a Bloomington High School student asked a teacher to stop bugging her about prom. She couldn't afford a dress, so she wouldn't be going.
English teacher and senior adviser Gloria McElwain wasn't deterred: She got that girl a dress and she went to the dance.
The story got around. Since then, McElwain and various volunteers have given away 370 dresses to BHS students for homecoming and prom, even weddings.
The effort, now known as BHS Bloomington House of Style, has grown to include attire for boys; McElwain also has helped some people with clothes for State Farm Insurance Cos. internships.
"We had many, many students who weren't attending homecoming and hesitant to attend prom because they couldn't afford the attire. So, we began collecting donations of gently-used formal dresses from people," said McElwain.
Several other high schools, including Normal Community and Tri-Valley, have similar programs for homecoming or prom, and business is brisk right now with homecoming season in full swing: Homecoming dances are this weekend at BHS, NCHS, Tri-Valley and Olympia; Central Catholic's is next weekend. Normal West and University High have had their homecomings.
McElwain estimates the average prom dress costs $230. Some girls choose to get a dress at BHS, not just because of the cost, but also because they aren't comfortable shopping elsewhere, she said. Volunteer students, who help display and sort the dresses, also act as personal shoppers for students wanting some help.
"I just love to see the girls' faces when they find the perfect dress," said Ginny McElwain, a BHS student and daughter of the program's founder.
"It's fun to dress up," added Gloria McElwain, noting that red and pink seem to be the most popular colors this year. There is a current need for dresses in the middle sizes.
Bloomington House of Style currently has about 120 dresses in stock, and continues to accept donations for future events. Last year, 56 dresses were given away for homecoming and prom. The dresses are free, and students can decide if they want to keep them or pass them on.
And, the effort keeps expanding.
Along with adding more clothing for boys, an accessory line with purses, gloves and jewelry is growing.
The biggest addition is the conversion of a former BHS office to the House of Style headquarters that will include dress racks and tables to display other items, and a new changing area. Construction is expected to be finished in November.
Donations of all dress sizes are welcome and can left at the main BHS office.
At NCHS, teachers Vicki Kobel and Heather Budak, who are sisters, helped organize a dress donation program called NCHS Wishes that provides formal clothing for prom.
"They advertise and allow students to peruse their inventory and take what they would like," said NCHS principal Dave Bollman.
Starting in January, the program likely will expand to include donations from students as well as staff for the first time, he said.
At Tri-Valley in Downs, the effort is less publicized, but still valued by students. Kristin Myers, an agriculture and science teacher, quietly started a free dress-giving program when she became aware that some students skipped homecoming or prom because they didn't have anything to wear.
"It's very clear at Tri-Valley a lot of students 'have' and a few don't," said Myers, the junior class sponsor.
Since then, the program has grown to serve others, including students with different priorities than spending $200 for a dress for one night. Some students would rather use the money for college savings, or to buy something that means more to them, she said. "It's not just based on need now," she said.
She has about 40 dresses, and pays for the cleaning to get them ready for students. There also are items for boys.
When a student asked Myers why she goes to the trouble, she said, "I just want you to experience prom."