Sally Hernandez didn’t think she would make it to prom this year. The John F. Kennedy High School senior couldn’t afford the dress or other costs associated with attending the big dance.
That’s why she was excited to come to Emerson College Los Angeles on March 3 to participate in Operation School Bell Prom Day, an annual event sponsored by the Assistance League of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Unified School District that provides dresses, shoes, and accessories for prom to 85 homeless and low-income high school girls.
Volunteers at Operation School Bell Prom Day wear pink as they help high school girls pick out prom dresses and accessories.
The event was held for the first time at ELA’s Bill Bordy Media Conference Center, allowing for a bigger and more enhanced experience. The room was transformed into a pop-up boutique filled with racks of prom dresses in every color imaginable. Tables sparkled with high heels, jewelry, handbags, and makeup. Volunteer seamstresses helped the girls fit into their dresses, while hairstylists and makeup artists provided image consulting.
All of it added up to an experience that girls like Hernandez won’t soon forget.
“Prom was the last thing on my mind,” said Hernandez. “I was just thinking about how am I going to live?”
For the past few months, Hernandez has bounced around from shelter to shelter, friends’ couches, and even spent a week sleeping in a park. Kicked out of her home at 18, Hernandez said she has had a difficult time finding shelters to live in because she doesn’t qualify or meet specific requirements (she’s neither pregnant nor an addict).
High school senior Sally Hernandez receives makeup tips from a volunteer.
“I’m trying to make it work,” said Hernandez, who had to quit her job at Chuck E. Cheese’s recently because the bus schedule conflicted with school and other commitments.
Now, with the help of her academic counselor, Hernandez has found a place to sleep, and for one special day got to feel like a princess.
“I feel like Cinderella,” said Hernandez. “I’m going to prom by myself, but looking like this someone’s bound to ask me.”
Sally Hernandez looks for jewelry to match her new prom dress.
Operation School Bell Prom Day was co-chaired by Linda Levine ’77 and Wendy Silver, who spend the year soliciting donations from local corporations and community members. When the duo first took over the event five years ago, it was a much smaller affair. Levine approached Emerson about utilizing the space after realizing that the event had outgrown its previous home.
“I was thinking about what’s close, and oh my goodness, ELA has this incredible space,” said Levine. “Emerson really, this year, saved us. We didn’t know where the event was going to be.”
Once the initial phone call was made to Emerson, it only took a few minutes for Kevin Bright ’76, ELA’s vice president and founding director, to agree to donate the space.
Linda Levine '77, co-chair of Operation School Bell Prom Day, and Kevin Bright '76, ELA's vice president and founding director.
“ELA is proud to participate in this important event and serve our local community,” said Bright.
Students and staff from ELA volunteered for the event, which lasted about eight hours. In all, about 60 volunteers from the Assistance League of Los Angeles and the local community participated in the event to give students like Alayjah Thergood a memorable experience.
“I never thought I was going to go to prom because my mom can’t really spend a whole lot of money right now,” said Thergood, a senior at Ramon C. Cortines High School. “Now I have this opportunity to go. I’m so excited and even cried a little.”
High school senior Alayjah Thergood looks for shoes to match her gold prom dress.
Prom is still weeks away for both Thergood and Hernandez, but it isn’t the only major event on the horizon. After graduation, Thergood plans to attend a trade school to learn cosmetology, while Hernandez will be attending College of the Siskiyous in Northern California to study vocal performance. She wants to become a singer and teach music one day.
If you’d like to support Operation School Bell, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Watch press coverage of the event from KCAL/KCBS, KNBC, and KTLA, as well as KABC, Fox LA, KLCS, Telemundo 52, Univision 34, Azteca 54, and Estrella TV. Read press coverage from 89.3 KPCC, the Los Feliz Ledger, and La Opinión.