MERCED -- There's only one prom queen, but that doesn't mean Merced County high school junior and senior girls can't all feel like the belles of the ball.
Three of Merced County's high schools -- Atwater, Golden Valley and Merced -- are trying to do just that, with a prom dress drive, a fund- raiser for students who can't afford new gowns.
Lindsi Cosyns, Merced High School student body president, said her school's leadership class came up with the idea when they read an article in The Bee about a mother who started a similar fund-raiser in Ripon after her daughter's death.
The class decided that could be their way of giving back to students, she said.
The event, which began in late February, is based on the Bay Area nonprofit Princess Project -- an 8-year-old organization that holds dress giveaways for high school students.
So far, 150 dresses have been donated by teachers, students and community members.
Through the program, which started late last week and runs through Friday, students from any Merced County high school can pick a dress, shoes and accessories at a vacant store Cosyns secured for the dress giveaway in The Promenade shopping center on East Yosemite Avenue.
Students just need to bring their IDs, she said. The store will be open from 4 to 8 p.m.
In addition to the three high schools, several clothing stores in town agreed to be drop-off points for dresses, as well as donors.
Taneka Payan-Williams, owner of Chloe's boutique in downtown Merced, said she got involved in the event because she remembers what it felt like to not be able to afford a prom dress.
She wore one of her old dresses that she and her mother had decorated with feathers, she remembered.
Chloe's donated a gray sequin dress to the dress drive, and Payan-Williams said the retailer plans to donate another special dress that won't be available in the store.
"I just think prom is so expensive," she said. "Just because you can't afford to go doesn't mean you shouldn't go."
Students have been shy to express interest in the dress drive, Cosyns said.
Melinda Crook, an English teacher at Golden Valley High School whose classroom is one of the drop-off sites for dresses, said only two students have come to her about the dress drive.
Some students may be embarrassed that they can't afford a prom dress, Cosyns said.
"Students don't want to look like the girls that can't afford prom," she said.
Participating in senior activities can get pricey, so it's understandable why students and parents can't afford everything.
Graduation night festivities, a cap and gown, and senior pictures can cost more than $500, wrote one Merced High School mother in an e-mail.
That doesn't include prom tickets.
Cosyns is optimistic. She said she anticipates 100 students showing up.
To make more parents aware of the dress drive, Merced High School students plan to send an automated phone message to parents today explaining the details of the event.
People can drop off gowns at the various locations until Thursday. For more information, e-mail Lindsi Cosyns at email@example.com.