Virginia UM church provides prom dresses for Mississippi

4/4/2006

By Lilla Marigza

United Methodist News Service

In the living room of the rented trailer where she lives, high school student LeAnn Potter models a shimmering gold dress and a matching purse and shoes.

Potter’s mother is delighted. “Oh, they’re beautiful,” she says.

The outfit was donated by the Discovery United Methodist Church in Richmond, Va., hundreds of miles away from Potter’s home in Pascagoula. Thanks to Discovery Church members, Potter is going to the prom.

It’s a rite of passage Potter and her friends thought they might not experience as their community struggles to recover from Hurricane Katrina. “It was a nightmare,” Potter says. “You feel like the world’s coming to an end because you have so much on your mind.”

She and half of the 1,100 students at Pascagoula High School lost their homes when the hurricane struck Aug. 29. The school is still standing, but many families live in temporary homes and lead very different lives from what they once knew.

Pascagoula Assistant Principal Kelly Long says going forward with the prom will be good for everyone. “They want to feel normal,” she says of the students. “We have students that are used to having their own bedroom, their own TV, their own everything … lots of privacy, phones. … Now, they are sharing a camp trailer with brothers and sisters (with) no privacy at all. The whole family is living in a small camp trailer.”

“It’s really awesome that we’re even having the prom,” says senior Melissa Ellington.

Katrina left no shopping district to buy formal dresses and no money in most families’ budgets for such extras.

Long has heard it over and over: “I’ve heard girls say, ‘I wasn’t going to the prom.’ ‘I didn’t want to ask my mom for a dress.’ ‘You know we’re trying to buy tile and we’re trying to replace the couch; there’s not money for dresses so I wasn’t even going to ask.’”

Now, no one has to ask. A makeshift “store” has been set up in the school teacher’s lounge, and prom dresses are free for the taking. There are hundreds of colors, styles and sizes to choose from, just like a real store.

Eleventh-grader Stacy Long is among those trying on dresses. “I think it’s great. I’m glad people sent these dresses because a lot of girls didn’t want to go because they didn’t have a dress and their parents couldn’t afford a $400 dress. We are very grateful.”

In the days following Katrina, Discovery United Methodist Church initially sent $25,000 to the Mississippi coast to buy emergency food supplies. Six months later, the need was different. Discovery Church Pastor Jim Lavender is from Columbus, Miss. “My sister is a teacher down there, and she told me Pascagoula was in dire need of prom dresses.”

The church put out the word to the Richmond community and the dresses started coming in. More than 600 dresses were collected, along with shoes, tuxedo jackets and accessories.

A church member volunteered to load the dresses into a trailer and drive them to the school. The donations filled 21 big boxes — care packages full of lace, taffeta, beadwork and something else: disposable cameras.

As each girl holds up her chosen gown, a “click” is heard with a flash of light. School administrators will add these photos to the ones they will take on prom night. “We’re going to send them along with the thank-you book to the Discovery United Methodist Church. The community can look through and see the girls in their dresses,” says Principal Long.

As the March 25 prom approached, these students who have lost so much looked forward to a celebration. Potter says their hardship brought them closer together. “After the hurricane, you came to school, and that’s all you had — your fellow classmates.”

For decades, the Pascagoula prom has been a tradition. Principal Long points out it was be good to be back to “normal” for a night.

But prom isn’t just a “normal” night — and that’s the idea, says Potter in her golden gown. “I’m going to know what dress I wore, who was at my table, and I’ll remember what shade of lipstick I wore. I’ll just remember everything about the prom and how it was so exciting.”