More than 1,000 donated gowns are allowing Winnipeg high school students to celebrate their graduation in style.

It's a dream come true for Irma Cook, who was expecting to attend her graduation ceremony at Windsor Park Collegiate wearing regular clothes.

The 19-year-old, who was in foster care since she was six months old, said life has sometimes been hard but she's now looking forward to the next chapter: She is hoping to become a hairdresser.

'I thought this is ridiculous, everybody wears their grad or their bridesmaid dress once and then they hang it up in the closet.' —Lianne Tregobov, program coordinator

But for the moment, she said she is simply happy to find a dress that makes her look and feel like a princess.

For single-mom Angel Starr White, graduating will be a big deal, and having a nice dress is icing on the cake.

Individuals and businesses donate the gowns as part of a program called Gowns for Grads. It was started three years ago at St. John's High School, for Grade 12 girls who couldn't afford a grad dress and therefore didn't attend the celebration. The cost of a new graduation gown is usually about $300 or more.

"I thought this is ridiculous, everybody wears their grad or their bridesmaid dress once and then they hang it up in the closet," said program coordinator Lianne Tregobov, who has helped give new life to those forgotten clothes.

Program made available to grads city-wide

The program has been such a success that it was expanded this year to schools across the city.

On Thursday, students were checking out the gown boutique set up at the Canad Inns Polo Park's Ambassador Ballroom. A personal shopper was on hand to help them find the perfect dress.

'It's awesome. It's just a good opportunity because there are so many costs with grad.' —Jenn Aho, student

The girls also tried out matching shoes, purses and other accessories, which are part of the free package. After the grad ceremonies, everything will be returned then brought out next year for the graduating class of 2010.

Pat Mousseau, a guidance counsellor at Children of The Earth High School, said the program in invaluable for the girls at such an important moment in their lives.

"Financially, and some of the struggles they go through at home — some of them are single parents — so to be able to see them put on these dresses, to be Cinderella for a day, is just amazing," she said.

"It's awesome. It's just a good opportunity because there are so many costs with grad," said Jenn Aho, 18, who picked out a white gown with small red flowers on Thursday.

She's excited to be able to attend her grad, thanks to the kindness of strangers.

Rebecca Dirkson, from Argyle School, said it was a magic moment to choose from so many gowns.

"It's like Christmas," she said, adding that she wanted to complete her princess outfit with a tiara.

Now that the program for the girls is on solid footing, Tregobov is hoping next year to be able to provide tuxedos and suits to graduating boys. The committee has already arranged for a local business, Marvelous Mascots Inc., to outfit the guys for $20.

More information on the program can be found at www.gownsforgrads.org.