It might only be April, but prom was on the minds of visiting high school students at Emerson College Los Angeles (ELA). On March 29 and 30, ELA hosted Operation School Bell Prom Day, an annual event sponsored by the Assistance League of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) that provides dresses, shoes, and accessories for prom to homeless and low-income high school girls. It was the second year that ELA hosted the event, which was expanded to two days this year, doubling the number of girls helped from 87 to more than 200 from more than 40 LAUSD schools.
Claire Hernandez, a senior at Green Design Community School, was one of those girls.
“I really didn’t think I was going to be able to attend my senior prom,” said Hernandez, an aspiring environmentalist who will be attending California State University, Los Angeles in the fall as an environmental science major. “My mom works two jobs and I didn’t want to put any more strain on us financially. But because of today, I’m able to have a good night of memories with my friends.”
A volunteer helps Claire Hernandez pick out accessories to match her dress. Photo/Emily Theytaz.
Hernandez selected a beautiful nude dress and accessories to match with the help of a volunteer and a hug of approval from her school counselor. “It’s beautiful to see these girls who have nothing leave with something special that they will cherish their whole lives,” she said.
Alumna Linda Levine ’77, who co-chaired the event with Wendy Silver, said when organizers were looking for a space to host Prom Day last year, she knew who to call. “We were looking for a space big enough to accommodate us that we could afford. I thought to myself ‘I know of somewhere!’ and called [ELA Founding Director] Kevin Bright, who graciously donated the space to us,” she said. “We wouldn’t have been able to afford the event it if it weren’t for Emerson.”
Girls were able to choose from multiple racks of more than 400 donated dresses (most new) and tables full of high heels, jewelry, shawls, purses, and clutches in a variety of colors. Volunteers helped the girls go through the process of picking their dream prom outfit, having their hair and makeup done by volunteer professionals (as examples of what they could do themselves on the big day), and finally, having their dresses altered by professional seamstresses.
High school senior Kerrie Stuart looks at one of her red prom dress selections as volunteer Maureen Fletcher watches in the background. Stuart ended up choosing another dress. Photo/Daryl Paranada
For Kerrie Stuart, a senior at Dymally High who plans to attend California State University, Long Beach to study sports medicine in the fall, her dream prom dress was a shade of red to match her date's outfit.
“I was excited when I was told I could participate because I wasn’t really planning to go to prom. My parents couldn’t afford it,” Stuart said. But after finding out about Prom Day through her school counselor, Stuart is looking forward to attending the big dance in May.
Stuart spent the day choosing prom wear with Maureen Fletcher, one of the event’s many volunteers.
Kimberly Palacios and Kerrie Stuart, both seniors at Dymally High School, pose in their prom dresses. Photo/Daryl Paranada
“Everybody who is here today is a volunteer,” said Levine. “It really goes to show how amazing people are to be willing to devote two full days to help these girls be able to attend their proms in their dream outfits.”
There was, however, a stipulation to attending the event. “All of the students were required to maintain good grades to participate,” said Levine. “It’s incredible to see these girls walk in, trying to play cool and have an attitude about it, until they see themselves in their dream dress and then the tears start. It’s magical.”
Clyde Haygood, a volunteer professional hair and makeup artist, worked on curling Cleveland High School senior Edith Matinon’s hair while talking to her about his experience working with the Kardashians.
Haygood volunteered his skills to the event because he wanted to help the girls feel beautiful. “It is an amazing cause. And I want to be able to show the girls what they’re capable of doing with their hair and makeup so that on the night of their prom they’re able to recreate these looks and make themselves feel like queens.”
High school senior Edith Matinon looks for a purse for prom. Photo/Emily Theytaz
Matinon has had a hard few years. She moved out of her house at age 15 because of her physically abusive mother and started sleeping on her best friend’s couch while trying to work a part-time job at a laundromat and attending school.
“School came second to trying to make money for myself and I was on the verge of being kicked out so many times,” she said.
However, thanks to the support of her teachers, she went from a D average to an A, meaning she was able to attend the prom event. “It means a lot to me that my teachers are here today helping me pick out my prom dress, and it means even more than I’m able to attend my prom at all. I’m very grateful.”
Levine hopes that the event can keep expanding to accommodate more girls. “Every girl should be able to attend their prom, and we want to help make that happen.”
For more information on Operation School Bell, visit its website at https://operationschoolbell.org/.
Check out TV and print news coverage of the event.