This article was published in the Lenoir News-Topic.

In a room full of tulle, silk and sequins, girls from high schools across Caldwell County dug through the racks in search of the perfect prom dress for this weekend.

Hibriten senior Jordan Hightower had already found hers. She stood in line for the dressing room with the gown draped over her arm.

“I’m going to die if it doesn’t fit,” she said matter-of-factly.

With more than 600 prom dresses in the room, you’d imagine a small fortune was spent on eveningwear.

No one paid a dime.

Hightower and dozens of other girls were shopping at The Grace Place Community Church, which for seven years has provided free prom dresses for girls in Caldwell County.

There’s no income requirement and no questions asked. If getting a free prom dress can make your life easier in any way, you’re welcome to come shop.

If there was no room full of free prom dresses, Hightower could afford to buy a dress, she said. But now, she doesn’t have to worry so much about the cost of all the other prom necessities – nails, hair, shoes, dinner.

“Just the small things are going to cost me a lot,” she said. “This helps.”

For West Caldwell senior Kayleigh Huffman, it was less about the money than the allure of a room full of prom dresses and nothing else.

“I haven’t been able to find one yet,” said Huffman, who’d already been on a handful of dress-shopping trips.

Prom season was narrowing to crunch time, and Huffman hoped to leave the Grace Place with a dress in hand.

Of course, it’s still prom season – which means there’s still some stress, starting at 9 a.m. Saturday when the earliest arrivals lined up for a glimpse at the gowns.

“They’re just kind of waiting in anticipation,” church member Melody Losier said. “They don’t know what to expect. They just know there’s a dress involved.”

That nervous anticipation transfers over to the dressing room line, too.

West Caldwell senior Courtney Pennell stood in that line carrying three dresses, all in shades of pink.

“I found, like, really, really pretty dresses,” Pennell said. “I’m just really praying that they fit.”

Not everyone finds the right dress at The Grace Place. But when they do, you can tell, church member Wendy Gragg said.

“When she puts it on, it comes alive,” Gragg said. “The dress makes her more beautiful and she makes the dress more beautiful.”

The event has grown since its start nearly a decade ago. In year one, there were fewer than 200 dresses. This year, more than 600 crowded the racks.

The goal for the church is to provide some financial help in a tough time, but it’s also to share their faith.

“We get to share the Lord with them,” church member Melody Losier said. “That’s why we do it.”

With that in mind, the congregation went into overtime in the weeks before the event. Many volunteers stayed at the church until 10 p.m. after working 9 to 5, Losier said.

Church members solicited donations of drinks and chips and cupcakes from Food Lion, hauled in racks and mannequins donated from department stores, and neatly arranged the dresses, boutique-style.

A chalkboard over the refreshment table bore a phrase in chalky pastels, written by one of those volunteers.

“Welcome to our Father’s house,” it said. “Make yourself at home.”