Clay, W.Va. It was not her favorite color, and it hung from a rack made from two-by-fours and pipes, but it was the perfect prom dress for Jennifer Mullins: It had straps, it came with a wrap, and it was free.
The 18-year-old made her choice Monday at a makeshift boutique in the Clay County High School gym, stocked with about 450 gowns donated by students and parents at an exclusive private girls school in New York City.
In an event dubbed Operation Prom Dress, students at the Hewitt School in Manhattan, where the yearly tuition is nearly $20,000, sent the new and used dresses along with shoes, gloves, jewelry and other accessories to girls in this poverty-stricken Appalachian county where the median annual household income was about $21,000 as of 1997.
All of Clay County High's 325 or so girls were allowed to select a dress and accessories. So were some teachers who will be chaperones at the May 11 prom.
"I found a great dress. It's not pink, but it's really pretty. It's black and sort of ... shiny," Mullins said.
"I love it. I feel so elegant," said Katie Walker, 18, after trying on a pink strapless number with sequined trim along the bodice. "I saw this when we were putting out the dresses. So when it was my turn, I went straight to it, tried it on and it fit."
Most of the dresses arrived by truck last week. Six Hewitt students, six parents and two faculty members flew by private jet Monday to Charleston, then traveled 60 miles by van to bring the last 50 dresses to Clay.
"This is so wonderful. It makes me excited for my own prom. The girls are so nice and welcoming," said Claire Henry, 17, of New York City. "The drive from Charleston was very beautiful. Everything is so green. It's very different from New York City."
Henry said she saw Operation Prom Dress as a way to say thank you for some of the help New York received after the terrorist attacks.
Clay, a no-stoplight town of about 600, is situated in a coal-and-timber area where unemployment is 12 percent, one-third of the children live in poverty and about a quarter of the homes are trailers.
Still, Clay County High is a National School of Excellence with one of the highest attendance records in West Virginia.
"The girls are so excited, and the boys have pitched in and built clothing racks," said Principal Cindy Willis. "All the girls are included whether they are needy or not. They appreciate this offer of friendship."
Shawn Hardman, 18, who helped to build the dress racks, said he did not feel left out.
"The girls' dresses are much more expensive than what boys spend. We may only have to spend $100 on a tux and flowers, but the dresses can be $300, $400, $500," he said.
Operation Prom Dress grew out of conversations between Clay County High's principal and Dena McKelvey, whose daughter is a junior at Hewitt. McKelvey and her husband, Andy, had helped Clay County residents in the past through the McKelvey Foundation by providing scholarships and clothing.
"Our girls in New York go to so many bat mitzvahs and parties that they have a lot of dresses. You wear a dress once, you can't wear it again. That's just not cool," McKelvey said.
Linda Gibbs, head of the Hewitt School, said she hoped to involve other New York private schools in Operation Prom Dress and perhaps make it a regular event.
"All of our students are young women of privilege," Gibbs said. "They may not all be wealthy, but they all have great opportunities. That's why we believe strongly that those who have much have an obligation to give back."