Say Yes to the Prom and TLC give deserving girls a chance to be prom princesses
Credit: Ken Visser

For a girl who was sure she would have to sit out the prom because she couldn’t afford a dress, Ashley was thrilled when she was chosen to be a part of TLC’s Say Yes to the Prom special.

“Going to prom is something every girl dreams about, but I didn’t think I’d make it,” Ashley, 17, tells PEOPLE. “This is all very amazing.”

Ashley is one of 55 girls in Miami chosen by TLC and parent company Discovery to participate in their annual prom dress donation event, tied to the TV special, Say Yes to the Prom, that airs May 20 at 9:30 ET. TLC sponsors the prom dress giveaway – along with a day of pampering and an accessories shopping spree – in other cities around the country, including New York, Los Angeles, Dallas and Silver Spring, Maryland (home of Discovery corporate headquarters).

But it was the Miami girls who were treated to something extra: They starred in a runway prom fashion show, complete with stage lights, throbbing music, and an eminent emcee – Say Yes to the Dress fashion director Monte Durham. It was all set up by TLC producers in one day in the Grand Ballroom at the historic Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, Florida.

What amazed Ashley and the other girls, all from families who have had to overcome difficult life events – including homelessness for some of them – was the generosity of the people who donated their time and goods to the high schoolers. The students chosen to participate were recommended by their teachers and community organizations. They had to be high achievers, involved in their community and have financial need.

“This is the first time I’ve shopped for anything without have to look at the price tag first,” says Paula, 17, a classmate of Ashley’s from Miami Southridge High School, as she examined a pair of sparkling rhinestone chandelier earrings, one pair from a table full of jewelry donated by J.C. Penney.

Also available for the girls (for free) was their choice from among more than 2,000 prom gowns, including new styles by designer Sherri Hill. Dresses that retail for as much as $700 were there for the choosing.

“I’m not even sure where to start,” says Laura, 17, also from Southridge. “I’ve never seen so many dresses in one place!”

After the shopping extravaganza, next came full hair and make-up – more services donated by companies working with TLC.

At the end of the runway show, each girl was offered a two year college scholarship and given a new laptop.

“This is such a big weight lifted off my shoulders,” says Paula. “When my mom heard, she started to cry. I don’t have to worry anymore – and neither does she.”