For high school seniors, prom is a significant rite of passage — a night to dress up, let loose and revel in the culmination of the past four years. It’s also a significant financial undertaking: prom-goers can spend upward of $150 on a ticket alone, not to mention the cost of attire, flowers, food and transportation. For girls in particular, the pressure to have immaculate hair and makeup is topped only by the anxiety of finding the perfect prom dress — and, like most things teenage girls pine after, they don’t come cheap.
Thanks to a recent Pasadena community effort, however, 40 lucky ladies not only found their dresses, they didn’t pay a dime for them. Last weekend, the Pasadena Salvation Army hosted its eighth annual Prom Dress Giveaway, an event that gives low-income girls the opportunity to pick out a prom dress from a beautiful selection of new and lightly used gowns and frocks.
While the event is run in partnership with Pasadena Unified School District’s Families in Transition program, this year the Salvation Army extended the offer to seniors from a number of high schools in surrounding communities, including Highland Park, Azusa and El Monte.
“We know that it’s very expensive to attend a prom, and we wanted to make it possible for more of these girls to attend,” said Jhoanna Hirasuna, social services director at the Salvation Army. This year, she said, girls had about 700 dresses to choose from, with sizes ranging from 00 to 24. With such a large inventory, each girl went home not only with a dress for prom but also one for graduation.
At least 300 brand-new dresses came from Pasadena-based bridal boutiques Bridal and Special Times and Anna Elyse. Other dresses were donated by the Huntington Hospital Guild and local high schools, including 130 from Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy, which participates in the event as one of its yearly service projects. Most of those dresses were only worn once as recently as last year, and Salvation Army volunteers sifted through all donations to ensure that each dress was fashionable and faultless, so there was no need to worry about shoulder pads or moth holes.
“I really didn’t expect much, because when you think of the Salvation Army, you think they’re just donated clothes and you’re probably not going to get the nicest gown, but I thought, it’s better than nothing, and that’s why I came here,” said 17-year-old Janelle Bracamontes, who learned about the event from a flier at her school.
After trying on a variety of stylish short dresses and formal gowns, however, it became clear to Bracamontes that her difficulty wouldn’t be in finding a nice dress, but choosing one. After deliberating to a chorus of oohs and ahhs of her mother and event volunteers, she finally settled on an elegant floor-length ivory gown for prom and a long fuchsia frock for her graduation. Both fit perfectly.
“I’m shocked,” Bracamontes beamed. “I didn’t expect to see such gorgeous dresses, and I just absolutely love them. My friends are going to be jealous. They’ll be like, ‘What the heck, Janelle, how’d you get this dress?’ And I’ll be like, ‘I went to the Salvation Army.’”
Monica Flores also hit the jackpot at the event. The svelte senior tried on about 10 dresses before stepping into a dramatic sparkly white mermaid gown that instantly made her look — and feel — like royalty.
“As soon as I put it on, I knew it was the dress,” Flores said. It was a little big, but she felt confident that her mother, who made her quinceañera dress, would be able to take it in. “The No. 1 thing I was worried about [for prom] was the dress, because we don’t really have a lot of money. Now, it’s kind of crazy that I’m going to take that home. I’m really excited and I know that I’m going to feel really beautiful that day.”
Flores wasn’t interested in finding a date, she said, but was more concerned with looking her best and having a great time. Like Bracamontes, she also found a second dress for graduation: an intricately beaded art deco-style champagne gown that looked straight off the set of “Downton Abbey.”
In addition to the dresses, girls could also choose from a selection of donated accessories and jewelry, and each received a $30 Target gift card to go toward cosmetics and other attire. Hair and make-up vouchers from Pasadena-based Factory Salon were offered in a prize raffle, while dry cleaning vouchers were available for any dresses that required a bit of extra care. Staffed by community volunteers and residents from Salvation Army’s Oak Crest rehabilitation program, the event wasn’t only memorable for the girls.
“For the volunteers, it was also a great experience to be of service,” said Hirasuna. “For some of the women from Oak Crest, it brought back memories of their own proms. Unfortunately, many of them never got to go to their prom, so it was a nice thing for them to live vicariously.”
With an infectious smile and positive energy, Salvation Army Advisory Board member Kathy Larson floated from room to room admiring and complimenting each girl on her dress selection. Having participated since its inception, Larson said the prom dress giveaway is one of the events she most looks forward to every year.
“You’re blessing people and watching them walk out of here with joy,” she said, her eyes welling up slightly. “Nothing could fill my heart more than to see someone so happy and feeling so good about themselves. I’m on a cloud today. I’m going to be on a high for a number of days.”