A fairy godmother waved her wand recently over 60 teenage girls preparing for their spring prom at Pasadena Salvation
Army’s eighth annual Prom Dress Giveaway.
Clad in cut-off jean shorts, sneakers and ponytails, the young women filed in early, the birds still chirping, giggling excitedly among their friends, moms and guardians.
An hour or so later, they shyly emerged, twirling in satin and ruffles, hair let down, beaming from ear to ear to “oohs” and “ahhs.”
Glittery high heels and accessories to match helped them complete the Cinderella look.
Cassandra Carmona, an 18-year-old high school senior, tried on a handful of floor-length gowns from bubblegum pink to a puffy light rose before finally stepping out in a stately trim royal blue.
“That’s it, that’s it! That’s the one!” said her personal assistant, Brenda West, whoclapped her hands and jumped up and down.
Carmona twirled and the soft sheer fluttered around her just the right way. Laughing, tears welled in her eyes and she was just able to sputter out, “I think so too!”
Prom may seem like a status quo for high schoolers these days, but with cost of the rite of passage growing, it can also become a source of anxiety and depression for those unable to attend. A girl’s prom dress can start at about $150, not to mention the associated shoes, accessories, hairdos, dinner and cost of prom tickets and transportation.
The collaboration between the Salvation Army, Pasadena Unified School District and a host of donations and volunteers aims to cut out that stress for girls and their families. This year, they were able to offer about 600 new or lightly used dresses to choose from. Seniors were able to take two dresses; one for prom and one for graduation. They also opened the event to 8th-graders looking for promotion dresses, and invited girls from cities outside Pasadena, too.
The only prerequisite was that they register by early March.
Capt. Terry Masango, the corps officer of Salvation Army Pasadena, stood out in a sea of mostly young women. This was his first time overseeing the event.
“I’m quite limited here, being a guy, but I have so enjoyed just watching everyone today,” he said. “There are moms who can’t stop wiping tears and the girls who can’t stop smiling. It’s the best part of being at the Salvation Army. We get to be conduits of grace.”
He noted that for many families, even those not using the nonprofit’s services regularly, the end-of-year school graduations, promotions and prom all put together can really be a financial squeeze, especially for those with several children in school.
“This is a time of year when families hit the panic button over how to pay for these items, like a prom dress,” he said. “We feel we can ease that pressure so they can use the disposable income for more pressing matters.”
Nearby, Tasha Gist was matching accessories to an embroidered, shimmering blue gown, swinging back long blonde hair to speak to her “personal shopper” from the Walter Hoving Home — a spiritual center that helps women rebuild lives. About nine women from Walter Hoving volunteered at the event, treating the girls like princesses, holding gowns and giving some good, old-fashioned advice, woman to woman.
Gist, a 17-year-old senior from Pasadena’s Blair High School, got help buckling the hard-to-reach clasp of her strappy high heels.
“Thank you so much for doing this. You are so awesome,” Gist told Dea Wilkerson, who laughed and then stood back to get a good look at the combination.
Another volunteer, Brenda West, excitedly cheered on her “clients” as they transformed from the dressing rooms. This was her second year helping out.
“I just love it. It’s such a celebration to see these girls about to graduate … it brings tears to my eyes.”
While the morning was a procession of girls and emotions, the Salvation Army team expertly moved behind the scenes, helping the girls, re-hanging gowns, protecting dresses in garment bags and finding sizes and colors like retail pros.
Salvation Army Director of Social Services Jhoana Hirasuna stood quietly in the wings, fielding calls or directing volunteers to clothing racks or garment bags.
Called the “best thing since sliced bread” by one volunteer, Hirasuna deftly passed on any recognition to the collaboration of nonprofits in Pasadena for making the event so successful.
“The flow has just gone really well today. We had so many dresses to choose from and so many happy girls. This is just a huge partnership,” she said.
The girls form a special relationship with the Walter Hoving Home assistant shoppers during the event.
“It really speaks a lot to the Walter Hoving program,” Hirasuna said. “A lot of these women are overcoming a lot of things — it’s part of their therapy to connect. Many of them never got to graduate or go to prom, so it lets them live that vicariously.”
Among donations that make the event possible, the Pasadena Unified School District’s Families in Transition helped by collecting dresses and provided a breakfast and lunch for the event day. Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy collected 120 gowns at its annual prom dress drive. The Walter Hoving Home, Rose City High School, Bryan’s Cleaners, Sierra Madre Women’s Civic Club and Pasadena Sandwich Co. also gave invaluable time, resources and volunteers,