DARIEN -- Ten years ago, while working as an event planner, Noel D'Allacco kept running into young women flush with bridesmaid's dresses for which they had no use.

"They kept saying, `I bought this dress for $300 and I'm never going to wear it again. What am I going to do with it?' " D'Allacco said. Lucky for these women, and for the 11,000 young women who have benefitted from D'Allacco's organization in the past decade, she had an idea.

"I'm from Yonkers, which is a really diverse place economically, and I had a lot of friends in high school who had difficulty affording going to prom," she said. "So I called my old high school and found out that there are a lot of girls in that position."

And that's when Operation Prom was formed. The nonprofit accepts donations from bridesmaids, moms cleaning out their daughter's closets and everyone in between, to be given to young women in need. Last year, in Westchester County, the organization provided stellar gowns for about 700 girls. And this season, Operation Prom is coming to Connecticut for the first time, having just opened up a space in Darien, which D'Allacco said will help the program reach girls from as far away as Hartford.

A survey conducted by Visa last year found that the average cost of attending a prom in the Northeast rings in at $1,528, with expensive dresses coming in as one of the most expensive hurdles for young girls in search of the teenage dream.

"In this economy, who can afford that?" said D'Allacco.

When she first launched the program, she required students to bring their parents' financial returns to the headquarters to see if they qualified for a dress. These days, with costs soaring and a wide array of people struggling to bounce back from the recession, she has opened it up to girls from all financial backgrounds, and focuses instead on students in good academic standing.

"It's so important to be able to help make these girls' prom dreams come true," said Armand Perez, a spokesman for the new Connecticut location at 30 Old Kings Highway South in Darien. While the new operation is just getting on its feet, representatives are already accepting donations and are in talks with local school districts about the best way to identify students who could benefit from the program. And while a lot of the referrals do come from the school districts themselves, Perez said families can apply for the program by visiting operationprom.org.

"A lot of times, students feel embarrassed or ashamed that they need a dress, or they feel like they don't want someone else's hand-me-downs," said D'Allacco. "But if you go into our Westchester warehouse right now, we have over 2,000 dresses, and I would guesstimate that about 90 percent of those are brand new with tags on," thanks to donations from formal shops and designers.

"No one should feel funny coming to get a dress," she said. "And no one should feel like they can't go to prom."

maggie.gordon@scni.com; 203-964-2229; http://twitter.com/MagEGordon