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Dress Giveaway Helps Poor Kids Achieve Prom


It's the season for the prom, a ritual that seems to get more expensive each year. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates recently visited a group of young ladies in Southern California who were getting ready for their Cinderella moment courtesy of some real-life fairy godmothers.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: This huge, high-ceilinged room is lined with fancy dresses and crammed with excited girls and their adult stylists.

Unidentified Woman #1: That necklace is great.

BATES: Most weeks, this dressing room at the Assistance League of Southern California is filled with low-income, elementary school-aged children. They come to be fitted with free clothes and shoes, courtesy of a local nonprofit. But for one special day each year, it's all about prom.

Ms. ANDY GOODMAN (Assistance League of Southern California): My name is Andy Goodman, and we're at Operation School Bell in Hollywood.

BATES: And, says Goodman, while the dresses may look like mere special event clothes, they're really much more than that. They're rewards for girls who have excelled, despite extraordinary challenges.

Ms. GOODMAN: A lot of the girls actually are homeless, but they're very high-achieving students. And I know I met a woman that came in and - she came in in sweat pants. That's all she had. And we gave her a prom dress. And we gave her some other clothes, too, because we do provide school clothing here. And she was going to Long Beach State next year.

BATES: Another volunteer turns and welcomes Angelica Hernandez, clad in jeans and T-shirt. Then introduces her to one of the many well-heeled Assistance League volunteers.

Unidentified Woman #2: This is Perri. She's going to be working with you.

Ms. ANGELICA HERNANDEZ: OK. Sounds good. Hello.

Ms. PERRI KRANSDORF (Volunteer, Assistance League of Southern California): Hi, Angie. I'm Perri.

Ms. HERNANDEZ: Nice to meet you.

Ms. KRANSDORF: It's my pleasure. What school are you at?

Ms. HERNANDEZ: South Gate High School.

Ms. KRANSDORF: OK. OK. Let's find you a dress for prom.

BATES: While she's changing, Perri Kransdorf explains the dress is just part of the preparation.

Ms. KRANSDORF: They come in. They get a dress. They get shoes, a shawl, a handbag, jewelry, nail polish, makeup. So once they leave here, they're ready to go to prom.

BATES: The dresses come from different sources: socialites who can't wear the same thing twice, manufacturers, designers. They look fresh and new and current.

Sometimes the match between girl and dress is love at first sight. Tiny Emily Eta would have drowned in a floor-length gown. She emerged from the fitting room in a strapless cocktail dress that was girly and glamorous.

Ms. EMILY ETA: When I went on the rack, there wasn't really any long dresses. But the person who was helping me out, she just gave me this dress, and it's just, like, really pretty.

BATES: It's hard to say who's more tickled: the girls with their new dresses carefully draped over their arms, or the volunteers, who are just beaming.

Angelica Hernandez plans to study biology at Cal State's Merced campus in the fall. She's decided on a frosty aquamarine satin gown that makes her skin glow. The ladies approve.

Unidentified Woman #3: It's gorgeous on you. That color's gorgeous on you.

BATES: And as Angelica leaves, the next young lady begins her search for the perfect dress.

Unidentified Woman #4: OK. I need four dressers, please.

BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.