Volunteers make prom special in Sitka

In this photo taken March 30, 2013, in Sitka, Alaska, volunteers Janet Warner, left, and Mandy Odenheimer do last minute alterations hours before the prom was held at Mount Edgecumbe High School. Mount Edgecumbe is Alaska's only boarding school, and many of the 360 students who attended prom come from more than a hundred Alaska villages. Employees and retirees of Seattle-based Alaska Airlines are in the fifth year of the Prom Princess program, which secures donated dresses and brings in hair stylists and nail artists to get the students ready for prom. Warner, of Seattle, is retired, and Odenheimer is the airline's station manager in Sitka. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

SITKA — For girls, proms are all about the dresses. Kayla Wolfe just never imagined what it would take to pick one.


First, there was what felt like a million questions. “What kind of dress was I looking for? What size am I? What kind of color? Long or short?” said the 15-year-old freshman at Mount Edgecumbe High School, a state-run boarding school in Sitka, Alaska.

Her answers gave her passage into a room stocked full of dresses — a bounty that Kayla, or most students, in rural Alaska have never seen.

The dresses were brought to the school by the Seattle-based Prom Princess program, which brings the prom experience to Mount Edgecumbe, where many students don’t have the resources or the help from their far-off families to get party dresses, tuxedos and makeup for their big night.

“All of these people are here helping them (the students) out and doing all this stuff, and suddenly they realize they’re a lot more important than they ever thought they were,” said Ivy Lanthier, project director for the school’s dorms. “That’s the big thing.”

In its fifth year of helping students at the school, the program arranges for donations of the dresses, discounted tuxes, and hair and makeup artists.

Mount Edgecumbe, which sits in the shadow of a dormant volcano, is the only state-run boarding school in Alaska. It has nearly 400 students, and about 80 percent this year are Alaska Native. Many, like Kayla, hail from small communities well off the state’s limited road system. Many schools in these rural villages don’t have proms, and ones that do aren’t at Mount Edgecumbe’s level.

Program founder Terri Bogren said she and other volunteers, mainly her co-workers at the Seattle-based Alaska Airlines, are proud of the teenagers for leaving their families and villages to get a better education, and this is a way to show their admiration.

“They don’t have the family support to help them do this. So we’re kind of like fairy godmothers here to help them make sure they can look as good as they want to go to their prom,” she said.

Bogren got the idea for the program when she lived in Sitka and helped a niece, who was attending the school, get ready for the prom. That’s when she realized other girls weren’t going to the dance because they didn’t have a dress.

Bogren moved to Seattle after she got a job as an account specialist with the airline, which had just celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2007. She decided to see if anyone would be willing to donate their party dress from the anniversary ball for the girls at Mount Edgecumbe.

“I know lots of people buy expensive dresses and only wear them once,” she said. “So I figured this would be a good opportunity to ask for donations.”

That first year, 30 dresses were donated. That number has increased to about 130 this year, and the girls get to keep the frocks they pick.

The main booster for the program, Bogren solicits donations while talking to people on airplanes, in airports, at work. The program has a signature identifier: During the prom, all the volunteers wear tiaras, but Bogren sports one throughout the year to attract attention to her program.

The number of volunteers also has grown, from Bogren and five others the first year to about 40 this year. The volunteers are Alaska Airlines or Horizon Air employees, and their family and friends from across the Pacific Northwest. The volunteers include professional hairdressers, nail artists, even a master tailor.

Last Saturday, they gave the girls up-dos, fancy nails, took prom photos and made flower decorations.

Like many students, sophomore Jessica Mute was appreciative for the help. She spent the day primping for the all-school prom, but also found time to make her boyfriend a boutonniere. Mute said it was especially nice since the boarding students “have no parents or moms” there to help them.

For many, Saturday’s prom was the first time they have dressed formally for a dance, had clothes altered, had their nails and hair done, got tanning, even wore jewelry. “It’s something that many of them have seen on TV,” Lanthier said. “They know other people do it, and now they’re doing it.”

Kellie Oester, a Portland, Ore.-based flight attendant who was in Sitka for the second year, said the freshman girls “touched my heart.”

“I have a daughter that is 17. I think, ‘Oh, it would be hard for her to be away from home.’ So I think they kind of get the nurturing from us,” said Oester, who described her duty as “glam fairy,” spraying girls with glitter.

And for the record, Kayla picked a dress that was black on the top with white frilly ruffles on the bottom. She planned to wear it when she and friends went to a pizzeria before the dance. “I’m just going to be extra careful” not to drop any food on it, she laughed.


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