This year, Congregation Or Ami won the Irving Fain Social Justice Award from the Union for Reform Judaism for our multifaceted project: Supporting Children in Foster Care. We are proud of all of the activities that make up this Project, including Prom Prep, Mitzvah Day, Back to School and Holiday Child Shopping Sprees, and Adopt a Child Abuse Caseworker. Read about this year’s Prom Prep (pictures here) in an early version of an article by Elyse Glickman, that appeared in the Jewish Family magazine this month:
The Real Red Carpet Treatment
Volunteers from Calabasas’ Congregation Or Ami and Encino’s Valley Beth Shalom team up with Los Angeles’ Department of Children & Family Services to create the ultimate “dress for success” prom event.
By Elyse Glickman
The senior prom is more than just a fancy party. It’s a right of passage marking a young woman’s transition from high school into womanhood and real life. Though looking glamorous and ending childhood on a high note is front and center, the prom can be as important, meaningful and emotional a day as a wedding or a landmark birthday.
For some girls, especially those who came of age in foster families, and sometimes under the most challenging of circumstances, the opportunity to experience the prom can be life-changing. Prom Prep 101, coordinated by Los Angeles’ Department of Children & Family Services (DCFS), and supported by Jewish community and church volunteers throughout the city, was conceived to not only provide essentials for foster girls’ senior proms, but also life after the prom. Though the program’s original name was “Feel Like a Princess Day,” program coordinator and ACAC (Adopt A Child Abuse) Caseworker Lovette Panthier wanted its name to reflect its more grown-up, self-esteem building objectives.
“We recruit volunteers through word of mouth and synagogue correspondence,” explains Susan Gould, president at Congregation Or Ami, introduced to the program by one of her fellow congregants, Laurie Tragen-Boykoff, several years ago. “Once someone has participated in the program, she always comes back the following year, and usually brings daughters or friends. This is a fantastic way to bring of our congregation’s main tenets, People Matter, to life. By demonstrating and living tzedaka, we teach our youth to take action to help heal the world. My daughter Joanna and I have participated in this event for several years. We have done everything from soliciting dresses from stores to collecting gently-used dresses, working the accessory tables and escorting young ladies at the event. I am thankful my daughter wants to continue participating in this event, as she says it makes her feel grateful for what she has. Furthermore, she is still in touch with Kaylee, the first girl we escorted.”
Thanks to the leadership of Gould and Debbie Echt-Moxness (who took over Prom Prep 101’s management when Gould became Congregation Or Ami’s president), congregants have not only donated volunteer time but also thousands of dollars to maintain the program. Ongoing outreach into the community and communication with program coordinator Panthier as well as Patti Jacobs and Bess Resnick, the event co-charis at Valley Beth Shalom, meanwhile, have this year resulted in generous donations from Wells Fargo Bank as well as dresses from Trendy Collection, Noell and many Jewish congregation members. Other donations, overseen by Rabbi Noah Z. Farkas include shoes from David Miles of Treasure Depot BH, jewelry by Jay and Kathy Ottenstein, and beauty products from OPI and Avon. Professional hairstylist Laurie Heaps will be recruiting the army of hair and makeup artists, while Steve Cohen of Starlite Caterers provides a sumptuous meal for girls and volunteers. Panthier also mentions that this year’s class of prom queens will also receive a copy of the acclaimed self-esteem book Exactly as I Am by Access Hollywood reporter Shaun Robinson.
Echt-Moxness, however, stresses the human touch temple volunteers (such as Arlene Wolff), church volunteers (Donna Mae Pitluck, Shirley Thomson andJanet Fisher), speakers (Sheryl Marcus of the Fashion Institute) and organizers (including Randi Simenhoff) bring to Prom Prep 101 give the girls memories and self-assurance that endure long after their prom’s last dance.
“Many of them come in reluctant, shy and withdrawn,” observes Echt-Moxness. “By the time they walk the red carpet at the end of the day, their spirits are shining, their faces glowing and they are smiling ear to ear. It’s as if they are saying, ‘Ready or not, World, here we come!’ Though we don’t actually give them self-confidence, strength and inner beauty, the way we treat them bring those gifts within each girl out into the open. I see each of these girls like a gem waiting to be set. Though their spirits have been dulled by their life experiences, the day of generosity and loving kindness is like a polish. Volunteers, meanwhile, act as mirrors allowing the girls to see their special-ness in a new, different way.”
Echt-Moxness adds that some of the most life-changing moments for both teens and volunteers take place when young daughters of volunteers tell their escort how beautiful she is. “Beyond dresses and accessories, the feeling of being looked up to is one of the most important gifts teens take home,” she muses. “However, the gift goes both ways. My daughter Molly praised the teen she was working with, and the teen was so moved, she got down on her knees—difficult with all the extra material in the way–took Molly’s hands and said, ‘You are beautiful, too, and don’t you ever forget that!’ The glow on both of their faces and hearts was priceless.”
Charlisa Warner, who did Prom Prep 101 last year, stresses that she’s carried both the material and priceless gifts she received from the event into her new life as a college student. The 19 year-old has even channeled her resulting personal growth into a new business, www.tru-been.com, a web site designed to provide information and resources to girls like herself who are leaving the foster care system and entering adulthood.
“Prom Prep 101 gave me confidence in ways I did not expect,” says Warner. “Before Prom Prep 101, I was the kind of girl who was scared to go to prom. I was intimidated, did not know very many boys, and felt I wasn’t pretty enough. During Prom Prep 101, I learned I am a beautiful person from the inside out. (My experience at Prom Prep 101) has also motivated me to go out and help more people out there like me. I am grateful to my social worker for telling me about the opportunity to be a part of Prom Prep 101. Also, it brought me closer to my foster family because they encouraged me to go through the program, and going to the prom made me finally feel like a normal high school student doing normal high school things. If it wasn’t for this, I wouldn’t have had a dress, the first dress I ever owned, which made me feel like anything was possible.”
Sarah Machat, meanwhile, experienced Prom Prep 101 as a volunteer, and says her work reaching out to girls her age brings extra personal meaning to her Social Work major. “Volunteering for Prom Prep has opened my eyes a lot,” confides Machat. “The most important thing I have learned is that little things can make such a big difference in somebody’s lives. Though I mostly work on the sidelines during the Prom Prep events, I remember there was one girl who was pregnant but still interested in going through the program. Her willingness to ask for help, even though she was more vulnerable than many of the other girls and showing, revealed her inner-strength coming to the surface. It was gratifying to see her confidence in herself rise by the end of her makeover.”
Though she comes from a middle class background, Machat reveals she has an astonishing number of things in common with Warner, including dedicating significant personal spare time to the cause. The freshman serves as Director of Community Service for Alpha Phi (Eta Kappa Chapter) at University of California, Irvine, and is conducting a dress and accessories drive through UC Irvine’s Greek System to offer Prom Prep girls a fine and diverse assortment of goods.
“A kid who has had a tough life and grew up with very little suddenly becomes a role model for a younger child who has plenty,” concludes Congregation Or Ami’s Rabbi Paul Kipnes, an active supporter of Prom Prep 101 and the efforts of Jewish community members committed to the cause year after year. “This occurrence is not only life-changing but equalizing. It reminds us all that we are all people with hopes and dreams, and everybody alive has something positive to teach or contribute to society. Though its hard to track many of the girls after they graduate, we hear stories through their social workers about how many of them have gone on to get good jobs or go to college. We know we are through these programs not only boosting the self-esteem of these girls, but also showing them they have more options than they realized.”