School dances can be expensive between the dress, the shoes and the tickets, but this Middletown teen is in her fourth year of making it cheaper for low-income individuals.

Most teenagers dream of finding the perfect prom dress, but an MOT teen struggled for weeks to find one that fit and her family could afford.

After bouncing from store to store, her last resort was the Priceless Moments gown giveaway.

When she showed up, she was in tears.

“She did not want to be there,” Priceless Moments founder Emily Moffitt recalled. “She and her mom went to several places trying to find a dress. She was a bigger girl and they couldn’t find anything.”

She knew they were a family that did not have much money and being plus-sized did not make shopping easier.

Moffitt was able to find the perfect fit for her, making a smile finally appear on the teen’s face.

“Seeing the sheer joy from that experience, it was one of those moments of this is why I am doing this,” she said.

Prom can be expensive between the gown, shoes, tickets, hair, makeup and accessories, making it difficult for the low-income family to help their child get ready. Moffitt helps hundreds of teens all over the MOT area through Priceless Moments, a nonprofit that provides free formal gowns to low-income families.

The beginning

It happened by accident, Moffitt said.

When she was in eighth grade at First State Military Academy, formal was right around the corner when she asked one of her friends if she was going. Her dad had recently lost his job, so she couldn’t afford to go. The dress, the heels and the tickets were all going to be too expensive.

So Moffitt took the situation into her own hands.

She posted to Facebook asking if anyone would give a free gown to her friend. By the end of the night, the comment section was filled with people offering their garb.

“I was compulsive. I replied to every comment on the post,” Moffitt said.

From responding to every comment, she was promised 75 donations on the first night.

“It was honestly an accident,” Moffitt said.

PromGirl, an online formal gown retailer, reached out to Moffitt when her Facebook post started to garner attention. They offered her about 90 dresses, but she had to establish a 501(c)3.

“I was like, ‘I’m 13, I don’t have one of those,’” she said, laughing.

Knowing the group from previous volunteer work, Moffitt partnered with The Neighborhood House, a nonprofit that provides programs to help low-to-moderate income individuals, families and communities, to get the necessary certification.

Between PromGirl and donations from the MOT community, she ended up with more than 300 garments in her first year.

With advertising through social media and word-of-mouth, anyone who cannot afford a formal gown can come to get one, but it’s all based on an honor system.

“We just put the word out there, and if you come, you get one,” Moffitt said.

Now Priceless Moments is in its fourth year, and she has more than 700 to hand out.

Her main giveaway in 2020 was at the MOT Charter High School’s Prom & Graduation Expo Jan. 26. Although it has passed, she does one-on-ones for those who couldn’t make it. She said she will work with anyone who reaches out to her. She mostly gives away formal gowns, but it has now expanded to business and wedding dresses.

Helping teens

Marissa Stebner-Ellis, a junior at Middletown High School, went to last year’s main giveaway at Appoquinimink Community Library. She was able to get attire for a military ball and a friend’s prom.

“It made me so happy and excited,” she said.

In previous years, the first few people who show up are offered free alterations on the gowns.

For Stebner-Ellis, this made it perfect.

“They were able to make it shorter in the front and longer in the back. I loved it,” she said.

It was more than getting dresses for herself. She loved seeing all the other teens end up with one too.

A friend of Stebner-Ellis couldn’t afford a prom dress because her son’s birthday was around the same time as prom, and she couldn’t afford to go to the dance and throw a birthday party. Priceless Moments gave her what she needed, so she could do both.

“She was so happy about it she texted me afterwards,” she said.

Priceless Moments does more than give away the attire. Moffitt’s friends and MOT-area hair stylists help with hair and makeup. The hairdressers do it anonymously.

“It’s very hush-hush,” Moffitt said. “It’s not always directly through the salon. They often tell the girls to just come in.”

With Priceless Moments based on an honor system, Moffitt’s parents are uncertain at times if the teens who show up actually are low-income.

The First State Academy junior said her dad was unsure about one girl who showed up in a new car. He didn’t think she needed a free dress. Moffitt said no one knows what someone’s financial situation is, using her own family as an example.

“My dad had heart surgery and we lost half of our income out of the blue. You don’t know what just happened to them,” she said. “They could have just bought that car and then lost their job. It’s the matter of an honor system. I just hope they are being honest with me.”

After high school, Moffitt plans to enter the military and go to college. She doesn’t want it to end, so she would like to partner with a high school student to help her run it after she graduates: “I am too emotionally attached to it to give it up completely.”