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A gift of glitz for New Orleans prom

Marisa West was shopping for her prom dress last month when she started thinking about the high school students in New Orleans who are still dealing with the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Would they be able to have their proms? she wondered. Would they have anything to wear? Thanks to her, they will.
Marisa West of Washington, D.C., is collecting prom dresses to send to students in New Orleans.
Marisa West of Washington, D.C., is collecting prom dresses to send to students in New Orleans. Marvin Joseph/twp / Washington Post
/ Source: a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/front.htm" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Seventeen-year-old Marisa West was shopping for her prom dress last month when she started thinking about the high school students in New Orleans who are still dealing with the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

Would they be able to have their proms? she wondered. Would they have anything to wear?

Among the fancy dresses at Loehmann's was born a campaign to collect 100 prom dresses and ship them south. Less than six weeks later, the Beltsville teenager's Prom Dresses for New Orleans had received more than 425 dresses, including one promised from a former Miss America.

West picked up dozens more dresses Saturday when her campaign was spotlighted at the Heart and Style Conference and Fair.

"It hit me as I was shopping and remembering how much fun last year's prom had been for me and my friends -- how magical it had been to shop for the perfect dress, find the perfect shoes and the perfect earrings, get the perfect hairstyle," said West, a senior at Georgetown Day School in the District. "When I realized that thousands of girls in New Orleans wouldn't have that this year, I wanted to try restore it for girls at one high school, if I could."

The first step was finding a high school still planning a prom. From news reports, West knew that many of the city's schools remained closed. With the help of her mother, Leathia, the teenager began calling New Orleans schools.

At many of them, no one even answered. At others, no proms were planned. Finally, they made contact with a counselor at all-girls Cabrini High School, where more than half the students' families lost everything in the hurricane. Cabrini's prom is set for May 12.

"That's when Marisa went into high gear," said her mother, a social worker and ceramics teacher. The teenager set a deadline, which she has since extended to April 1 -- plenty of time to collect the dresses and transport them south before prom night. She set up a Web site, arranged for a post office box and established drop-off spots in the District and Silver Spring.

West, who was crowned Miss D.C. National Teenager in October and also holds the title of Miss Teen Annapolis, began talking up her campaign with her contacts on the pageant circuit. She and her mother kicked in the first 15 dresses.

"We're real glamour girls, so we have stuffed closets," West said.

Two weeks after she started, she met her goal. A week later, she doubled it. Her classmates and teachers have contributed dozens of dresses. Miss Maryland, Rachel Ellsworth, has sent a dress. A former Miss America, Heather French Henry, whom West met recently, promised to contribute.

Last week alone, more than 100 dresses came in. By the time West closes shop, she could have 500, more than the racks set up in the guest room in her family's home will hold.

"We're going to have to move to FedEx Field or something to fit them all," Leathia West said. "It has been heartwarming to see how people have responded."

Judy Thompson, chairwoman of Cabrini's guidance department, said the students are ecstatic about the effort. The school -- founded by Frances Xavier Cabrini, the first American citizen saint, and operated by the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus order -- escaped the destruction because it was on high ground. But many of its students lost everything.

"They didn't evacuate with prom dresses," Thompson said. "And even in the cases where their homes weren't completely destroyed, if you had a long prom dress hanging in the closet and got one foot of water, it was destroyed."

When the shipment arrives in April, the girls of Cabrini will have plenty to choose from. The donated dresses include something for every teenage girl's taste: fancy little black dresses, cocktail-length silk sheaths and elaborately sequined, full-length gowns in every size from 2 to 2X. Somebody even donated a Vera Wang dress.

"It's a simple little black dress with short sleeves -- very respectable and gorgeous," West said, sounding very much like an announcer at a fashion show.

Her favorite is a bubble-gum pink number she has nicknamed "the Cupcake Dress." "It basically looks like a Cinderella dress. It has a tight bodice, and then it explodes in tulle. If you are wearing it and you sit down, the skirt part doesn't really sit down," she said, laughing.

Besides dresses, she has also collected accessories. An artist friend offered to pitch in 25 hand-painted handbags. Another artist will donate 100 pairs of earrings that she is making especially for the New Orleans students.

And as her deadline nears, West is worrying about the logistics of getting the dresses south.

Her family had planned to ship the 100, but now that 500 are expected, she is hoping that a freight company will pitch in. She is also trying to arrange to make the trip to meet the girls of Cabrini High.

"I would just love to see their faces as they try on the dresses," she said. "I would love to go to their prom to see how beautiful they look and how wonderful they feel that night, despite everything they've gone through."

Thompson said she notified her students of West's program two weeks ago in an intercom announcement. The students were thrilled and hope to meet their benefactor. The school has about 200 juniors and seniors eligible to attend the prom, and they'll get first dibs, but younger students might also be offered a dress to save for next year, Thompson said.

Christina Luwisch, 18, a senior at Cabrini, said Friday that at times she thought that the prom might not come to fruition. "We didn't know what was going to be happening with the city," she said. "We didn't know if the students would be able to get here, and now to find out that it's going ahead and that Marisa has gotten dresses for everybody is like a dream come true."