Each school has an Up-Start liaison who helps identify needy students and provides them with everyday essentials such as food, clothes, and toiletries, as well as services such as transportation, after-school resources and counseling.

Erick Rivers could not decide between a slick black bow tie or a striped gold tie for the brown suit jacket he recently donned. He was shopping for his prom outfit at no cost to him. Prom is the seminal activity for graduating seniors, but for needy and homeless students the party can seem more like fantasy than a reality.

To help provide needy and homeless students with a complete prom experience, the school system opens up the Prom Boutique at the Lindsey Hopkins Technical College, a mini-department store that outfits students from head-to-toe in preparation for prom at no cost to the students.

It is estimated that more than 9,000 Miami-Dade County Public Schools students are homeless or live in transient homes, and about 300 of those students are unaccompanied minors living alone.

The Prom Boutique is part of the school system’s Project Up-Start, an initiative that seeks to ensure a successful educational experience for students who are homeless or live in an unstable housing environment. Project Up-Start staff help identify needy students and provides them with everyday essentials such as food, clothes and toiletries, as well as transportation, after-school resources and counseling. Each school has a designated school Up-Start liaison.

“It’s been a tough four years,” said Erick, 17, a North Miami Beach Senior High School student, while he browsed through the racks of the Prom Boutique in search of his prom outfit. “But through the help of my administrative team and faculty and staff support, I made it through it.”

Prom, for some, is the culmination of four years of homework, group projects, tests, cafeteria lunch and late-night study sessions. Girls swoon and fantasize about the perfect dress, shoe and accessories, while boys look dapper in freshly pressed suits and polished shoes. But a prom can be expensive. A Visa survey pointed out that the average cost of prom was $1,000 in 2015.

Last Friday, Erick and more than 30 students from North Miami Beach Senior High School browsed through the boutique trying on what would be their prom outfit. The boutique is complete with dresses for the girls and suits for the boys, as well as shoes, jewelry, purses, socks, bow ties, even make-up, and other toiletries. Mostly all of the items provided for the students are new or lightly worn, donated by different organizations.

Erick found a nice brown suit during his time at the boutique and even sought the school’s superintendent's opinion on tie options to match his suit. He said he did not have a date yet but has been waiting expectedly for the prom celebration. Upon graduation, Erick plans to attend Tallahassee Community College and then transfer to Florida State University. He wants to study theater and art history.

“I have been looking forward to prom for a long time and I can't wait to celebrate it with my friends,” Erick said.

The Prom Boutique is part of Lindsey Hopkins’ “shop,” a large room filled with clothes, shoes, backpacks, as well as canned goods and other everyday essentials for needy students and their families to take with them. The shop is open year-round and serves thousands of students each school year. Students and families can make an appointment to select free items.

In the last two months, students from different high schools have taken advantage of the Prom Boutique. Graduation ceremonies follow.

“No person in our community should go without participating in this milestone event that we know as prom,” said Superintendent Alberto Carvalho. “How shameful would it be if not having a dress would keep you from celebrating alongside your colleagues.”

In addition to providing students with prom outfits, Project Up-Start also helps pay for prom, grad bash and other senior activities for many of the homeless students.

Erick praised the school system’s efforts to help outfit students who do not have the means to afford many of the different senior-year activities like prom.

“It is very comforting that people go out of their way and do stuff like this for people that are less fortunate. This is a great program,” Erick said.

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