Dressed for Less

How Johnson County Public Library is helping teens get formal for free

By Sara McAninch

Prom and other formal dances can be expensive with the purchase of a dress and the rental or purchase of a suit or tux. Factor in shoes and other accessories and the costs add up quickly. Project Prom, the brainchild of Kelly Staten at Johnson County Public Library, is helping ensure no teens miss these special events because they can’t afford the clothes to wear. How? By giving out formal wear free of charge.

In its ninth year, Project Prom keeps helping the community, despite pandemic constraints, by hosting pop-up shops and continuing to accept donations year-round. Although the next event is still a few months away, the coordination committee is planning for 2022 with hopes of returning to the usual full-scale format.

From idea to action

The idea for Project Prom came about in 2012 when Kelly Staten, who is now a program manager at JCPL, was talking to a co-worker at the Clark Pleasant branch, where she worked at the time. Reflecting on an abundance of used formal dresses she had on hand, she decided to take action.

“We’re always looking for something unique for teens. They’re our hardest audience to reach because they’re so busy with other things in school and a lot of other things have their attention,” she says. With formal wear on hand and no plans of what to do with it, Staten went to work.

“Prom is definitely the biggest dance, and it’s also the most expensive,” she says. Dresses can cost upward of $1,000, and that price doesn’t include accessories such as shoes, handbags and jewelry. Buying a suit or renting a tux can also be costly. Recognizing that this kind of expense is “not feasible for a lot of teens,” Staten and her co-worker coordinated Project Prom “to fill a need in the community,” she says. The goal was that any teen in need could receive items to wear to a formal dance with no out-of-pocket expense.

Project Prom collected some 100 dresses in its first year, primarily through donations from library staff members. During the inaugural event in 2013, community participants were asked to bring clothes to swap, or they could take something for free if they didn’t have anything to barter. A total of 86 people attended that first year.


Since its inception, the annual event has given away 947 dresses, almost 100 pairs of shoes, over 170 accessories and nearly 30 suits or tuxes. Overall, 1,396 people have attended.

“Watching it evolve from Kelly having me organize a couple of dresses to this huge thing, it’s become so much bigger than we expected,” says Josephine Whitaker, a committee member and former college volunteer.

Whitaker, who is the reference assistant at the Franklin branch, helps sort and organize donations year-round. Conveniently located at the Barn, a former garage that’s been converted into storage space at the Franklin location, Whitaker easily manages the Project Prom inventory because it’s on-site at her location.

“Any donations from the other branches come to us, and I take them out there and start organizing,” she says.

In its fourth year, Project Prom expanded to the Trafalgar branch as its second event location. In Year 5, Franklin and the White River branches were hosts. It has since evolved even more and is usually at all four JCPL branches as separate events over a weekend in March, ahead of local spring breaks and proms.

“It’s definitely grown. We used to just have me and a few other staff members that I would beg to help me with it,” says Staten. “It got to be so big that we formed a committee of librarians and other library workers to help with planning and preparation. Set-up takes several hours.”

Erin Cataldi, the current program coordinator who also works as the teen and adult reference librarian at the Clark Pleasant branch, says, “Every year it gets bigger and bigger.”

Picking the perfect outfit

Any middle or high schooler — and even college student — in need of an outfit for a formal dance is eligible to get items at a Project Prom event.

“We don’t have any requirements. If you’re there, we trust that you need a dress. We don’t ask you to prove any kind of financial need. It’s open to everybody, even people outside of Johnson County,” Staten says.

With no forms to fill out, no library card requirements and zero cost out-of-pocket, finding a dress is as easy as showing up the weekend of the event.

“If you drive down here, you can get a dress or suit,” Cataldi says.

With more than 700 dresses currently in stock, there are plenty of options for 2022 formal events. Anyone needing a suit or tux may struggle some since “a lot of men don’t own tuxes. It’s really rare to get those,” she says.

If there’s a need for a specific size, color or style, the best option is to call any of the branches and ask for someone on the committee or ask about Project Prom.

Drop-off points

Because the annual event runs entirely on donations, community members are encouraged to give their gently used items. The Franklin branch is the best place to drop off items since everything is stored there, but any of the four JCPL locations will take them during normal business hours.

The most common donations are “prom dresses, homecoming dresses, short or long,” Whitaker says. Other needed pieces include earrings, bracelets, necklaces, shawls, scarves, cloaks, handbags, broaches, general costume jewelry, belts, ties, vests, and men’s and women’s shoes in wearable condition.

“We ask that they be current style,” Staten says. Retro items won’t be turned away; however, they must be in good condition.

The library sometimes partners with local businesses for dry cleaning and alterations, but it’s not always guaranteed these services are available, which is why anything new or gently used is accepted if the garments don’t have massive holes or major stains.

“If you’re willing to wear it again, then it’s donatable,” Whitaker says.

As with getting items, there is no residency or library card requirement to donate.

Wearable goodwill

The biggest benefit Project Prom offers is access to items people can’t always afford. “Being able to provide something like that for the community is really great because not everybody is able to get those things,” Whitaker says.

There’s no doubt it meets an important community need. “We do have some teens that have come every year,” Cataldi says. Some will even bring back the dress they got the year before and get a new one, continuing the cycle for someone else.

One of the most visible impacts was when Hartlee Chadwell won the 2018 Johnson County fair queen title while wearing a dress she got at Project Prom. “We thought it was pretty neat that she got her dress for her fair queen pageant at our event,” Staten says.

Because the need for affordable formal wear continues, Project Prom will keep giving and receiving. “We’re really excited that we can help people out when there isn’t something like it in Johnson County,” Staten says.

Learn more about Project Prom, see pictures from past events and receive up-to-date information at https://www.facebook.com/projectpromjohnsoncounty/. You can also get information on the library’s website at https://www.pageafterpage.org/projectprom.