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For Miami’s more than 6,000 homeless youth, growing up without a stable place to live is anything but a normal childhood.
But on Tuesday, some of these students forgot their worries for a few hours and enjoyed a typical high school milestone: shopping for the prom.
Small groups of girls perused hundreds of silky gowns and tried on sparkly high heels while the boys picked out suits and got fitted for tuxedos in a pop-up prom boutique at Lindsey Hopkins Technical College.
“I like shimmery things and this is it,” said Alexzandria Godinez, 18, a senior at William Turner Technical High School, trying on a glittery red gown in one of the dressing rooms.
Without the prom boutique set up by Project UP-START, a Miami-Dade school district program that supports homeless students, paying for an outfit and ticket to the prom would have been a struggle for Godinez. Last year, her family found themselves without a stable place to live. She and her mother recently moved into a new place and things are looking up.
It’s good to know that there are a lot of good people out there that come together and do this for kids who aren’t able to help themselves.
Alexzandria Godinez, a senior at William Turner Technical High School
“We made it through and that’s good,” Godinez said.
As she gushed about the shoes and jewelry she had picked out — a pair of golden high heels and a matching bracelet — Godinez was like any other high school senior, excited about the upcoming dance and anxiously awaiting college acceptance letters.
“This event is totally different, I was not expecting this at all,” she said. “It’s good to know that there are a lot of good people out there that come together and do this for kids who aren’t able to help themselves. This is amazing.”
That’s the idea behind the boutique, said Debra Albo-Steigler, Project UP-START’s program manager. “Of course we want to work on the education but it’s not just the education. We want to make sure that we’re helping them feel included with their classmates, that they never miss an event,” she said. “We work very hard to make sure they feel included and they get that icing on the cake they deserve for graduation.”
Clothing stores like Men’s Wearhouse, Perry Ellis and Mr. Tux, along with nonprofits Dress Me Darling Foundation and Becca’s Closet, donated clothes and offered free tuxedo rentals, and individual donors pitched in to help pay for prom tickets and accessories.
In addition to dresses and suits, the students got to pick out jewelry, ties, perfume, make-up and even nail polish, all of it free. Project UP-START has offered the prom boutique since 2013, when it was housed in a small office in the Miami-Dade School Board’s downtown headquarters. This year, Project UP-START plans to offer prom attire to between 400 and 500 students, who will be bussed to the boutique in small groups.
Events like these draw attention to the often invisible problem of childhood homelessness, said Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho.
“I know we’re very proud of the new skyline of Miami, those shiny tall buildings, we’re proud of our museums with millionaire contributions, we’re proud of Art Basel when it comes into town, we’re proud of so many things,” Carvalho said. “But if we do not fix this, we have done nothing. Homelessness, childhood homelessness in our community should not be acceptable.”
The school district created Project UP-START in the early 1990s and has expanded the program in recent years to serve students who sleep in homeless shelters, on the street, in a car, in a hotel room or squeezed into someone else’s home — known as “doubling up”. When it’s not prom season, Project UP-START’s office at Lindsey Hopkins houses a store where homeless families can get free clothing, shoes, toiletries and food. The program also helps students enroll in school, get signed up for free lunch, and find transportation.
When it comes to prom, however, the store isn’t just for homeless students. Any low-income student can shop there, along with student volunteers who support disadvantaged students at their school.
Romane Ultima, 19, a twelfth grader at Miami Edison Senior High, isn’t homeless, but his football coach brought him to the boutique along with some of his teammates. Finding a prom outfit would have been a challenge without Project UP-START’s help, Ultima said, both because of the expense and because of his lack of experience picking out formal clothing.
Now, fitted with a handsome black suit, Ultima said he thought his mother would approve when she saw him.
“She’s gonna say, ‘I’ve got me a Mr. President,’” he said, breaking into a smile.