The desire for a perfect prom night can lead high school students to anticipate anything that could potentially ruin their evening, such as a rude date or embarrassing parents. A hurricane is rarely on the list. However, this year for many students on the Gulf Coast, Hurricane Katrina washed away their dreams of any prom at all, much less a perfect one.
In the wake of Katrina, it seemed that prom season would not come this spring. Schools were destroyed, money was low and students had nothing to wear.
In an effort to provide hurricane victims with the seminal high school experience, members of the relief group Hands on USA worked to put on a prom for Mississippi’s Biloxi High School. Cornell’s Panhellenic Association participated in this effort by organizing a drive among the sororities on campus to donate old prom dresses to girls in Biloxi.
Rachel Goldfarb, Panhel vice president of university and community relations, said the organization collected about 50 dresses, “so the girls would have stuff to wear to the prom, because their clothes were ruined by Katrina.”
The dress drive was inspired by Mark Rishniw grad, whose father-in-law is a volunteer with Hands on USA.
“My wife’s stepfather went down to do relief work,” Rishniw said. “He found out that the high school was not going to be able to have a prom, so he organized volunteers to help fund the prom for Biloxi High School and a few others.”
Rishniw wanted to contribute to this effort and pitched the idea to the group he thought would be able to help the most, the Tri-Council.
“I figured sorority girls were a good place to start looking for dresses,” he said. In addition to dresses, shawls, shoes and purses were also sent. Volunteers in Mississippi made alterations to the dresses so they could fit the prom-goers.
“I think a lot of it was people realizing what they could do,” Rishniw said. “It was a way to make a whole bunch of high school girls happy.”
Christine Liguori ’08, the Panhel delegate for Delta Gamma, was instrumental in collecting 26 dresses, four pairs of shoes and two bags.
“I pitched it to my chapter before spring break and asked if anyone thought they had a dress they wanted to donate,” she said. “A few people raised their hands and I thought, ‘O.K., well, every little bit counts.'”
In addition to mobilizing her chapter, Liguori also collected prom outfits from her hometown.
“I also called my sister who is a senior in high school and asked if she had friends who were not going to wear their dresses again,” Liguori said. “She brought the idea to her honor society and got 11 dresses.”
Although many of the dresses that were collected were older or out of style, they were still of use.
“We went to a thrift store where a friend of ours works, and she gave us these hideous, old-school, country dresses,” Liguori said. “Mark was like ‘well, you never know.’ People are down there to alter the dresses, and they can use the fabric.”
The drive was so successful because prom dresses and shoes are frequently worn only once and then put in the back of a closet.
“Girls have so many shoes,” Liguori said. “They buy them for every event and then never wear them again. We are sorority girls, we are supposed to have dresses and shoes, and they are so easy to donate.”
Liguori attributes her motivation for collecting dresses to her own experience.
“I like doing philanthropy for kids because it is from the part of my life that I have been through,” she said. “I’ve been to prom, and I could not imagine high school without it. It is that ultimate thing, your senior prom.
Because of all the destruction on the Gulf Coast, an event like senior prom could easily have been overlooked.
But, said Liguori, “You cannot forget about the teens. It is probably the little things that hurt them the most. I liked that it was a different kind of relief.”