By Beige Luciano-Adams, Staff Writer for Pasadena Star News
PASADENA – Wearing an iridescent salmon dress and white socks, Brenda Garcia, 17, posed and pranced for a small crowd Saturday during “Cherished Memories” – an event designed to match 30 underprivileged north Pasadena teens with free prom dresses and makeovers at The Salvation Army Pasadena.
By far the most outgoing of the four young girls who showed up for the morning shift, the Blair High School senior was not afraid of the cameras or the questions about her personal life – the jagged details of which have made her mature well beyond her years.
“Without this event, I wouldn’t have a dress,” Garcia said, noting that the ticket to her May prom alone costs $100. “The foster care services are helping me out with that,” she added.
“If it wasn’t for this program, I probably would save my money to buy a dress – go to downtown L.A. – but this is a really good opportunity,” said a soft-spoken Ngozi Ogbeni, 18 and a senior at John Muir High School.
Her mother, Rochelle Ogbeni, added, “It’s wonderful…there should be more girls here. I didn’t get a chance to go to my prom, so I told my daughter you had better make the best of it.”
Some beneficiaries of Saturday’s program are in foster homes like Garcia, some have parents who have just lost their jobs or their housing; others are doubled up, living more than one family to a house, explained Socorro Naranjo, Pasadena Unified School District’s liaison for the Families in Transition program,which organized the event.
Pat Riley, director of social services for The Salvation Army Pasadena, said the program is growing in response to demand.
“We did a small one last year for about seven women, but PUSD said there was such a need,” he said. “All girls are from Blair and Muir – our target population is northwest Pasadena. We coordinate with FIT. They know their clients and the needs of the community.”
The Salvation Army’s Mentor Avenue compound is a plot of one-story cinderblocks with as much charm as your typical Elks Lodge. But racks of gowns – their metallic sheens, lace, satins, patterns – brightened up the dingy classrooms and the girls quickly picked gems from the rubble, disappearing behind yellowed partitions to try them on.
Nearby, five seamstresses waited to fit them for alterations.
“I really like grays and blues – but I’m looking for something bold,” Garcia said, pulling on a deep amethyst satin bubble dress. “This is really bold.”
That particular dress ended up on Jeanette Rico, 18, a John Muir High School senior who said she would have had to tap into a modest savings she’d set aside for school expenses throughout the year if not for the program.
“I saved up some money from working last summer,” she said. “I was going do my hair, nails, and makeup myself – but now I can go somewhere to get all that done.”
Rico admits she was skeptical before arriving.
“At first I didn’t think there would be any nice dresses, but once I saw them, I was like – wow,” she said, her eyes widening.
Women volunteers helping Rico, Garcia and their classmates included both donors who sit on the Salvation Army’s advisory board, and beneficiaries of its Adult Rehabilitation Center program.
While the middle-aged board members fawned loudly over the girls, the ARC members, many of them just a few years older than the teens, carried their dresses, watched the photo shoots, offered quiet encouragement.
“We try to do as many volunteer (projects) as we can, just give back for all that we’re getting, and we are really excited to help these girls today,” said ARC member Brittany Calvillo, 22. “We’ve definitely been looking forward to this.”
Jessica Taromino, 25, now two months into the ARC program, credited the Salvation Army with turning her life around.
“This is the first time I’ve been clean and sober in about 10 years,” Taromino said.
“I decided to volunteer because I heard about the Salvation Army was providing prom dresses to girls who can’t afford them. I remember my prom and how lovely it was so I wanted to try and help to make some memories for these ladies.”
Garcia, who now works for the Pasadena non-profit Day One and hopes to study criminal psychology in college next year, ultimately settled on a gun-metal blue strapless dress and shawl.
“Do you like that one?” she asked her friend, Mabel, 18, also a senior at Blair and the shyest of the group.
Mabel wore a pensive face and a simple black cocktail dress. “I do,” she said, but later settled on a more lively gold gown – which, her chaperon Taromino pointed out, was “the first one I had my eyes on.”