Students get all dressed up with somewhere to go

Fred McCormick

Two Tuesdays ago, 17 boys from Community High School perused racks of clothing at Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry, looking for the right combination of shirts, ties and jackets.

Some students emerged from the fitting room seeking the opinions of peers and school staff, while others sought help tying ties. The scene was what one might expect in the days before the prom. But there were a few subtle differences.

The rack room at Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry is laid out like a department store. Clothes are marked and hung on circular racks. In a back corner is a section of formal clothes, set up by Miriam Owens, Louise Jones and other volunteers especially for the students of the Swannanoa alternative school. The students arrived by bus in the morning.

“This is exciting to be part of,” Owens said. She was at the ministry last year when the school brought by a group of students to be fitted for the prom. “Once I saw them here last year I knew I wanted to be here for it this time.”

Jones, who has volunteered at the ministry on and off for the 25 years, had been folding clothes before the boys arrived. “I’m retired so this give me something to do,” she said. “I’m so glad that I’m able to help other people.”

Brian Espe, an intern social worker at the school, watched the boys walk into the rack room in small groups. “They’re excited about prom,” he said. “It gives them a chance to get dressed up and have a good time.”

Many, like Elijah Bryant, look forward to the opportunity to spend time with their friends in an atmosphere decidedly different from school’s daily environment. “I was excited to come in here today and have the chance to get some clothes for prom,” he said. “It’s going to be good to get together with friends and hang out outside of school.”

The prom, May 13, is in Candler this year at a venue called The Farm. Bryant will show up wearing purple. “It’s the same color that my girlfriend is wearing, so I figured that’s what I needed to look for,” he said. (Some of the girls at the school selected their dresses at Eblen Charities’ annual Operation Prom Dress in early April.)

Many of the students were excited to spend time typically spent in school looking for clothes, according to Alex “Hutch” Hutcheson, who has taught at the school for three years. “It’s also nice for them to be able to come in here and pick up something nice,” he said. “They wear this stuff beyond just prom.”

Community High School is intended to reduce dropout rates among Buncombe County students by providing an alternative to traditional teaching methods for students disillusioned with school. Many students like that couldn’t afford to attend prom if they had to buy the clothes to go, according to assistant principal Kevin Roberson.

“Without community partners like Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry, the (prom) probably wouldn’t be possible,” he said. Prom is an important experience for every young adult, Hutcheson believes.

“I mean it gives them something to be excited about,” he said. “Some of them may not even admit that they’re excited. But they are definitely looking forward to it.”

Espe asked a group of students if they were excited about the event. A few students nodded and smiled.

“For a lot of our students the cost of a prom in a traditional public school would be prohibitive,” Espe said. “But with support from the community, they have the chance to get dressed up and get excited about something.”