On Friday, May 14, thanks to the Long Island Hispanic Bar Association, the Freeport High School gym became a wonderland of prom dresses.
Exuberant young women, all of them graduating seniors, wandered among racks bearing glittering gowns of every size, style, and color. Wearing masks and surgical gloves, the girls made their selections. Two at a time, they disappeared into the locker room to try the dresses on over their clothing.
They came back out to admire each other’s transformation into beauty queens.
The dresses represented a rebound from the disappointments of the year before. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic canceled landmark in-person events like high school graduation and the senior prom.
Even this year, few high schools are having any sort of prom. Freeport High School, however, has scheduled a senior dress banquet on June 22, so a fine occasion will help the young women mark the end of their high school journey – if they have the right dress to wear.
“A lot of our families here are dealing with financial hardship because of COVID, and senior year is a big year in costs,” said Alicia Brenneis, Freeport High School’s social worker.
Brenneis and Nina Sasso, another social worker in the district, customarily invite the senior girls to a yearly prom boutique at Nassau Community College, but the COVID-19 pandemic caused NCC to cancel the occasion both last year and this.
The Long Island Hispanic Bar Association stepped in. This year was the fourth in which the LIHBA had conducted a prom dress drive, said LIHBA President Liza Milgrim, a partner at Sullivan Papain Block McGrath Coffinas & Cannavo P.C. In 2018 and 2019, the LIHBA had set up prom dress boutiques in Roosevelt, Brentwood, and Westbury.
“This was something very dear to our hearts,” said Milgrim, “because we [in the LIHBA]can all remember prom, and we can all remember the costs associated with the prom.”
Having collected nearly 200 dresses, Milgrim and her LIHBA colleagues looked for a place to set up the 2021 prom boutique. The Freeport High gym was big enough to accommodate the boutique under COVID protocols, so for the seniors there, the dream of finding a prom dress became a reality.
Sasso said that more than 80 girls answered the boutique invitation, which went out to every senior girl at Freeport High. All but four girls left with dresses.
“We were fortunate to have Liza step in,” said Sasso. “Our girls were really excited.”
The event was held 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. so that the students wouldn’t have to leave class. Lavay Foster arrived after a winning badminton game. She is captain of the team.
“It was an amazing experience, seeing all the dresses and gowns,” said Foster, “a great opportunity. I got two dresses.”
“They were given a formal dress and then they were also able to take a graduation dress, something that they could wear underneath their robe,” said Nina Sasso.
Milgrim, Sasso, Benneis, Badminton Coach Lolita Bathea, and others helped the young women find exactly the gowns they wanted. Bathea said she had never even seen some of the girls wearing a dress.
“It was wonderful be part of something that was so big for them, and important,” said Bathea.
“They were just humble and overwhelmed,” Benneis said. “No sense of entitlement at all. They were just in shock and awe, and over-the-moon happy about it.”
One young woman came doubting that she wanted to wear a gown, or even attend the banquet, but surprised herself by leaving with a beautiful dress.
“She is not a heels-wearing kind of person,” said Sasso, “and she was, like, oh, this would be perfect with a pair of silver Converse sneakers!” Sasso helped her obtain a pair.
For Milgrim and the members of the LIHBA, the prom dress drive is a yearly highlight for reasons that go far beyond providing the dresses and accessories. Many of the LIHBA members come from humble beginnings, Milgrim said. They were the children of hardworking immigrant parents, and the first in their families to attend college.
“So when we think about some of these young women who are in underserved communities and whose parents are immigrants and may be working just minimum wage jobs,” said Milgrim, “how are these young girls going to pay for the costs of a dress and all the other added expenses that come along with your senior year?”
Like Bathea, Milgrim understood that a formal dress might be a rarity among the Freeport seniors. “Some of these girls had never been in a gown before. Many had no idea what size they are.”
Even the few who did not find a dress did not leave empty-handed. Shoes and jewelry, too, had been donated, and every young woman who came was given a swag bag of beauty supplies.
“The message we’re trying to send,” said Milgrim, “is a message of support to these young women to let them know that, regardless of what they have to overcome, you have a community of professional women and men that recognize their obstacles and struggles. This is really more than a dress. It’s a celebration of their accomplishments.”