Their parents drive shuttles, paint nails and assemble parts. Some are disabled and others unemployed. But for hundreds of graduating high school seniors streaming through a San Jose community center recently, family economic woes won’t keep them from the glamour of prom night in a designer gown.

Eager teenagers selected from 1,900 new and lightly used dresses at a giddy, four-hour event in a room filled with creations that ran from satin and chiffon, to floor length and risque. The South Bay’s second major prom dress giveaway this season revealed how harshly hard times have cut into life’s small but significant pleasures – in this case, a chance to proudly attend a high school prom in style.

Jennifer Fleck, a laid-off alternative high school teacher, helped her 17-year-old daughter Sierra choose a black-and-white zebra print. A single mother of three whose unemployment is about to run out, Fleck said the roughly $1,000 cost of Leigh High School graduation events has been impossible to meet. There is simply no fat in the Fleck family budget to cover the $110-per-couple prom tickets, plus money for the party bus, dress and dinner.

While many of Sierra’s friends shop at upscale boutiques spending as much as $600 each, her date bailed on her because he couldn’t afford his portion of the prom ticket. That’s why a chance at a free dress perked up the tall teen, who is headed to De Anza College.

“I’m not really into weird patterns, but it’s my senior prom, and I want to shut it down!” said Sierra Fleck, who has yet to secure a new date but remains optimistic. “I want to be a showstopper.”

San Jose Vice Mayor Madison Nguyen launched Operation Prom Dress, which has steadily grown from 500 dresses collected from local retailers in 2009, to 1,900 offered this year. Teens that swelled in number to 800 began lining up at 8 a.m. this year – two hours before doors even opened. This year, for the first time, the offerings included a selection of tuxedos for the young men.

Nguyen, who grew up one of nine children picking and canning fruit in the Central Valley, is motivated by her own near-miss on prom night. Asked out by her junior-year “crush,” Nguyen faced the horrifying prospect of turning the boy down because she couldn’t afford a dress. Rescued by her sisters’ donated cash and a “simple but new” burgundy gown, Nguyen, now 37, said the prom remains a childhood hallmark, “and I want these girls to experience that.”

Her efforts mirror another, larger prom dress giveaway, the Princess Project, which began distributing its 2012 local lineup in Santa Clara, Calif., in March. Nguyen calls the events uplifting, but sobering. “When I look at how many girls are here picking up a free dress,” she noted, “it makes me really imagine how many girls would not be able to attend prom.”

Stylish graduate

Michelle Tran, a giggly 17-year-old, left the Seven Trees Community Center with two friends and a mint gown. Her single mother supports three children working at a nail salon. Tran said her mom offered to buy a dress, “but I didn’t want to accept because she works so hard and the economy’s so down.”

Like Tran, Maria Bustamante, 18, will now attend her prom – not only in style – but also as the first in her family to graduate.

“It’s long, and it’s beautiful,” Maria said of the lavender chiffon confection she selected. The teenager plans to study medical administration at West Valley College.

Maria’s mother, Yolanda Bustamante, simply beamed. Cash is short for the family of four, which relies on her husband’s income as a gardener; Bustamante can no longer clean houses after suffering a car accident several years ago. Now, with her daughter’s graduation paired with a send-off night to remember, “it’s an emotional time,” she said in Spanish. “We are proud for her and for the whole family.”