LOS ANGELES - In the United States, when students graduate from high school, many celebrate that achievement by going to prom. It is a dance party where students dress up in formal gowns and tuxedos. But not every student who wants to go can afford to dress for the occasion. Organizations across the United States provide free dresses and suits so students can go to prom. A program called The Cinderella and Prince Charming Project
allows teens from some of the roughest neighborhoods in the country to celebrate a milestone.
From sequins to lace, in reds, blues and blacks, gowns and tuxedos fill the courtyard of the "A Place Called Home" youth center. It is located in a Los Angeles neighborhood with a strong gang presence. The center provides mentoring, year-round education programs, and free dresses once a year for graduating high school students, like Leslie Pine, who otherwise could not afford to buy a dress for the celebration called prom.
"I've been looking forward to prom ever since I was a little girl," said Pine. "I think it's a reward for all the seniors like going through high school. That's what everyone looks forward to is that one night where everyone gets to celebrate all their accomplishments and stuff."
But, as Pine explains, the cost of going to prom can add up.
"I know a lot of people who are willing to spend at least $1000," said Pine. "My friend spent $600 on her prom dress. Limos are $100 each. [The costs add up…] the food, the pictures, pictures are $100 too."
That is why saving money on a prom dress will help make prom affordable for many of these students. This year young men also get free suits for the event.
Prom is especially important for students in rough neighborhoods, says Jonathan Zeichner, executive director of A Place Called Home.
"The drop-out rate in this neighborhood is extremely high," explained Zeichner. "Approximately 50 percent of the young people who enter the school system here never graduate from high school."
Zeichner says that when students do finish high school, the traditional pre-graduation party symbolizes a chance for higher education and a step away from violence and poverty.
"That is a huge step and a threshold that many of the young people here are stepping over as the first in their families to do so," Zeichner added.
Carlos Hernandez is the oldest of five brothers. He has never had a suit.
"My mom's out of work, and only my dad's working right now. We have to live with that," Hernandez explained.
Getting a suit at this youth center means more than just an outfit for prom. It allows him to interview for a job and dress nicely for graduation so he can be a role model for his brothers.
"I feel like I have to show them that we have to graduate and make something of ourselves," Hernandez added.
The teens who receive free suits and dresses are encouraged to repay the kindness of people who donated the clothes by giving back to their community.