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Twenty-one-year-old single mother Joan Guce chooses a necklace after picking out a dress during the Corsage Project, where hundreds of students are outfitted for prom free of charge, on Sunday, April 22, 2012 in Toronto. The students, which have been identified through their school, confidential referrals or the Children's Aid Society picked out new dresses, shoes, and jewelry donated by retailers.Siu for The Globe and Mail

It's early afternoon, and dozens of girls are crammed into a makeshift dressing room on the second floor of the Toronto Reference Library. Elbows and hips bump together clumsily as the teens push aside thick black curtains and search for an empty space, arms laden with dresses to try on.

They're here for the Corsage Project, a program designed for girls who might have trouble affording the luxury of a new prom dress on their own. After three hours of sifting through hundreds of dresses, shoes, handbags and accessories, the teens can walk away from the event with everything they'll need for prom – for free.

Working with the Children's Aid Foundation, the volunteer organization solicits donations from stores and individuals throughout the year, building up a giant inventory of dresses and accessories – most of which are new. The students are identified by their schools' guidance counsellors and invited to participate in the program confidentially.

Now in its twelfth year, the Corsage Project has outfitted close to 3,000 high-school grads for their prom.

After an initial round of shopping, student Joan Guce has narrowed her choices down to two: a pastel blue dress covered in a ballerina's toile and a deep purple cocktail dress. "This one's more me," she says, studying the blue dress in a portable mirror. But the other is "more elegant, more what I want to be."

At 21, Ms. Guce is older than many of the students here. Prom for her will mark the end of a tumultuous high-school career that saw her in and out of foster care and group homes, battling depression and giving birth to a son who will turn one next month.

She returned to high school last year and expects to graduate in June – an accomplishment she wouldn't have thought possible just a couple of years ago. "It's something big for me, because I did school and I gave up, and then I had to try again," Ms. Guce says. "And I've done it."

Sarah Tuite, a volunteer co-ordinator who has worked with the Corsage Project for more than a decade, says many of the program's young clients come from difficult backgrounds.

"You have no idea, sometimes, the things these girls have gone through, and at a really young age," Ms. Tuite says. "The fact that people have given them things without any strings attached, it's overwhelming sometimes."

Ashley Nascimento, a senior at Weston Collegiate Institute in Toronto, who was referred to the program through her school's guidance counsellor, says she prefers her Corsage Project outfit to anything she saw while window shopping at the mall.

"I'm happy," the 17-year-old says, modelling a short turquoise and black dress with rhinestones around the waist. "I couldn't go to the store and find something like this."

For Ms. Guce, uncertainty over her first-round selection prevails, and she heads back to the racks with her volunteer shopping assistant, Crystal Lai, beside her.

Ms. Lai's job is to guide her charge through the three-hour shopping experience, holding up dresses and tugging on zippers – then steering her through the crowd of other girls to find the right accessories.

At first, it's clear the two have different styles in mind. When Ms. Lai suggests a long green and white dress in a clingy fabric, Ms. Guce shakes her head firmly. She's looking for something that will better match her skin tone, she says. But mostly, "I want to look really fabulous."

In the end, the clear winner for Ms. Guce is a shiny pink strapless dress, paired with high-heeled silver sandals and a white handbag.

"I'm excited that I got the experience to do something that I never thought I'd be doing," she says. "I don't usually dress up. But knowing the fact that I graduated and I accomplished a big goal in my life, this is a big thing for me."

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