This prom season, hundreds of LA girls get a helping hand for their big night

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Evelyn Ortega had finally decided: an electric blue gown that reached to her toes won out over a strapless peach dress. A volunteer assistant helped her pair it with a sparkling black handbag and light blue jeweled earrings.

“Whenever for me, there is opportunity, I take it,” Ortega, a senior at Cesar Chavez Learning Academy-Social Justice Humanitas Academy in San Fernando, said about participating in Operation School Bell Prom Day. Ortega said she’d be going to prom with her boyfriend. After high school, she plans to attend Pierce College and pursue nursing.

The annual prom day event is put on by the Assistance League of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Unified School District. During the year, the Assistance League donates clothing, school supplies and other necessities to foster care and low income children.

But for prom season, the league and LAUSD organize a pop-up boutique for homeless and low income high school girls. Emerson College on Sunset Boulevard lent its space for the boutique, allowing the event to expand from one day to two this year and from 85 girls to 200 from more than 40 schools. All of the students were required to maintain good grades to participate.

The girls chose from racks and racks of donated dresses and tables full of donated jewelry, shoes and purses. A volunteer accompanied each girl and made suggestions. Professional stylists gave the girls makeup and hair ideas to re-create for prom, and professional seamstresses tailored the dresses once the girls made their choices.

“We give these girls, empower them, give them one joyous day,” said Linda Levine with the Assistance League and one of the main organizers for the prom event. “Yesterday, a girl said to me, ‘I finally feel like a princess.’ I mean, you see them walk in, and they’re shrugging. And they leave like, all of a sudden, their shoulders are up. It’s unbelievable.”

Natalie Aguirre, a senior at Cesar Chavez Learning Academy-Social Justice Humanitas Academy, is attending UC Merced after graduation, with plans to become an obstetrician/gynecologist. For prom, she and about 35 friends are renting a party bus and plan to take photos somewhere special before heading to the dance. She chose a two-piece dress, a long, gold, satin skirt and black lace top.

Aguirre was living with her grandparents until both died within a few months of each other, she said. The house had to be sold to pay for funeral arrangements, so she moved back in with her mom, living in a garage or sleeping in tents.


“It was really a hard time,” Aguirre said. “I just had to cope with the loss of my grandparents and the loss of my home, and on top of that, manage school and just try to stay positive through all of it.”

Aguirre said she and her mom still live in the garage but have converted it to be more homelike and comfortable.

Clyde Haygood volunteered his hairstyling skills at the prom boutique. A lot of the students already knew him from his celebrity work, including as stylist for the Kardashians, Katy Perry, Demi Lovato and a host of others.

“It seemed like an incredible cause,” Haygood said. “We’re here to lend a helping hand, and help them to create their look, for their dream prom.”

Danya Salguero, dressed in ripped jeans and a plaid shirt, admitted to being a tomboy. But the San Fernando High School senior picked a long gray strapless gown for prom night. She said she’s been living on her own since she was 14 and wasn’t able to live with either parent. She supports herself now with a maintenance job and another job at Lowe’s.

“I’ve never, actually, never put on a dress,” she said. “I’ve never seen this part of me. It’s really nice to look this way.”

“To go to prom, have fun, dance with my girls,” Salguero said about her prom plans, “You only get this opportunity once.”

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