From COVID masks to evening gowns: Newark’s Class of 2024 gets ready for prom

The pandemic forced a virtual high school start for Newark’s Class of 2024. Now, they’re trading in COVID masks for evening gowns. (Jessie Gómez / Chalkbeat)

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On a recent Tuesday afternoon, inside Hillside’s Community Recreation Center, the sounds of basketballs dribbling on the court echoed from wall to wall and the smell of sneakers and rubber filled the air.

As boys yelled at each other to pass the ball, teenage girls and their moms walked along the side of the court until they reached a gray door.

Behind that door, a small room had been transformed into a pop-up boutique where eager young girls searched for the perfect dress for one of the biggest nights of their lives.

Their high school prom.

Inside, white curtains and drapes hung from the ceiling and a crystal chandelier dangled in the middle of the room. Dozens of bright, shimmery evening gowns and cocktail dresses in shades of hot pink, emerald green, and baby blue hung on racks beside a table full of jewelry.

This year’s prom holds a special meaning for this graduating class of seniors, who didn’t have a typical high school start. Their first day of freshman year in fall 2020 was marked by uncertainty as the onset of COVID forced a virtual start for schools in Newark. Many are still reeling from the effects of the pandemic.

Now, they’re trading in their COVID masks and medical gloves for shiny earrings, sparkly gowns, and formal gloves.

Miss Grand New Jersey Tiajah Elliott helps Central High School senior Jadaisha Hinton tie the back of her pale blue dress. (Jessie Gómez / Chalkbeat)

Jadaisha Hinton, and her friend, Nadiya Denis, were among the girls sifting through the racks at the boutique run by the Prom Princess Project, which organizes an annual dress giveaway for girls in Hillside and the surrounding areas.

The week before, the two Central High School seniors couldn’t settle on a dress – even after trying on several at the shop. Now, the girls were in the community center bathroom trying on more gowns.

Jamilah Hinton, Jadaisha’s mom, scrolled on her phone while she waited for her daughter and joked: “I think they’re going to pick something today.”

Saying yes to the perfect prom dress isn’t easy

Prom Princess Project is a decades-long project run by volunteers Hawaiian Thompson-Epps and Ember Lofton in partnership with the Systas 4 Systas organization.

For the last 13 years, the duo has curated a free and unique experience for girls looking for dresses for prom, graduations, or eighth grade promotions. The hope is to provide some financial relief for families who may not be able to afford the expenses that come with those events, Thompson-Epps said. Last year, the pop-up shop welcomed roughly 100 girls and this year, they expect about 150.

“This is their moment,” said Thompson-Epps. ”This is their time. How could we not help?”

When Jadaisha and Nadiya walked back into the boutique after changing into the gowns they had picked out, they were greeted by gasps and “aws” from volunteers who eagerly ran to their side to accessorize their outfits.

Central High School senior Nadiya Denis tries to decide between a pair of long dangling earrings or sparkly studs. (Jessie Gómez / Chalkbeat)

“I’m just excited to dance and have fun with my friends,” said Jadaisha, as she took a second to admire the long pale blue dress adorned with gold flowers she had on.

“What size shoes do you wear?” Lofton asked Jadaisha.

“I don’t know, I’ve never worn heels before,” the girl responded.

Jadaisha’s friend Nadiya stood next to her in a red satin dress as Lofton placed a frilly red fascinator hat on her head. The girls are going to their prom on May 24 together and said finding the right dress was hard, especially because they had never worn an evening gown before.

They fidgeted in their dresses and giggled at each other as they took selfies in the mirror.

“This is tight,” said Jadaisha, pulling her dress up her chest.

“You look good,” said Nadiya, who modeled long evening gloves that matched the vibrant color of her gown.

Miss Grand New Jersey Tiajah Elliott, who was there to style the girls and teach them how to walk in evening gowns, helped Nadiya try on different earrings before she settled on ones that dangled down her neck.

Miss Grand New Jersey Tiajah Elliott helps Nadiya Denis try on different earrings. (Jessie Gómez / Chalkbeat)

“It’s a privilege to help these ladies find a prom dress, especially because I graduated in 2020 and didn’t get to go to prom,” Elliott said, as she taught the girls how to sit and stand in their dresses.

Minutes later, Amyah Bowens and her mom, Shantay Bowens, walked through the gray door. Everyone cheered and welcomed them with hugs. Amyah, a senior at the Newark School of Global Studies, said she had also been there the week before and tried on a dozen dresses.

She originally wanted an off-the-shoulder gown with a high side slit but “it felt weird when I tried it on.”

This time around, Amyah tried on a red halter top dress that she paired with a white lace fascinator and a long necklace that draped down her chest. When she looked in the mirror, she was stunned.

She laughed shyly after Thompson-Epps, who had suggested she try on the dress, complimented her outfit:

“It’s giving elegant, classic,” the teen said. “That’s what I wanted.”

Amyah’s mom, Shantay, stood in the back admiring her daughter and holding in tears. She had promised not to cry until her prom toast-off on June 18. Amyah is headed to Long Island University in the fall, Bowen said, “something I’m not ready to think about yet.”

Amyah Bowens, a senior at Newark's School of Global Studies, shares a cup of Arizona iced tea with Miss Grand New Jersey Tiajah Elliott. (Jessie Gómez / Chalkbeat)

Teens practice prom etiquette during ‘tea time’

After saying yes to the dress, Jadaisha and Nadiya sat at a small table at the end of the room for “tea time,” as one of the volunteers called it – part of the Prom Princess Project’s mission to help the teens practice sitting in their dresses and feel comfortable in formal wear.

Denis took off her evening gloves to pick up her cup of Arizona iced tea. Jadaisha laughed as her long braids draped over the back of her chair.

Friends Jadaisha Hinton and Nadiya Denis giggle as they sip their drinks during tea time. (Jessie Gómez / Chalkbeat)

“I’m so glad you ladies picked your perfect dresses,” said Elliott, who wore a sparkling tiara and her Miss Grand New Jersey sash and chatted with the teens about their plans to go to Essex County College after graduation.

Then, Jadaisha and Nadiya changed out of their gowns and back into their school uniforms of white polos and khaki pants. They cradled their dresses in plastic garment bags and hugged the volunteers good-bye.

As they gathered their belongings, Jadaisha’s mom thanked Thompson-Epps: “Now, all we have to do is get her some Spanx and get her nails done and we’re ready.”

Jessie Gómez is a reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city. Contact Jessie at jgomez@chalkbeat.org.

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