Sam Herod remembers the day a couple years ago when, as one of the many kind gestures he performs as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), he drove Lisa Slayton to the first day of her sophomore year at a new high school.
“They didn’t give her a lot of clothes at the group home, but she’s very fashion conscious and she put together this outfit that looked so nice,” he says. “But when she turned to get out of the car, I could see that the whole thing was held together in the back by a giant safety pin.”
So when the time came this year for Lisa to start thinking about her senior prom, she had to wonder whether she could even attend.
“I didn’t know if I would be able to get a dress,” Lisa says. “Definitely not my dream dress.”
But that’s just what she got, thanks to Glamour Gowns 2013, on Saturday and Sunday, March 9 and 10, at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Now in its twelfth year and produced in collaboration with CASA of Los Angeles and more than 250 volunteers, Glamour Gowns treats 325 female foster teens to a free prom shopping day. Nearly everything related to the event is donated, from new dresses and shoes to accessories and makeup. Even the space is donated, thanks to L.A. City Councilmember Jan Perry.
“Foster parents usually don’t have the means to give girls all of this,” says Sandi Romero-Boada, chair of the Glamour Gowns Committee. “But it’s about more than just getting a dress. These girls feel like they’re someone special. They feel like a princess for a day.”
As Sam sees it, prom season is also a rite of passage, a prelude to independence, and a time for teenage girls to think seriously about life after high school.
So he made sure Lisa didn’t miss Glamour Gowns. He picked her up on Saturday morning and took her to breakfast at the Pantry downtown. There he talked to her again about college, a topic he has raised throughout the four years he has been her CASA.
“Lisa is such a bright girl, and I’m trying to get her to think seriously about the future,” he says. “She could be the President of the United States. She understands the law, knows the Bill of Rights. She could go to court and represent herself.”
He means it. Lisa was once in a group home with another child who had a learning disability and clearly didn’t belong there. Lisa went to court and advocated for her to get a CASA. (The girl was later assigned to Sam.)
But for all of her precociousness, Lisa has had few adults in her life. She has been in the child welfare system from a very young age and has endured one failed placement after another. She describes Sam as “the dad I never had.”
“My thing is this,” Sam says. “Adults put her in this situation. She didn’t ask for it. So I think it’s the obligation of another adult to step up and say, ‘I’m here for you.’”
And she credits him for her now having a plan. Before they left the restaurant, she explained that she wants to go first to a vocational school to become a registered nurse, then to a four-year college for bachelor’s and master’s degrees and a career as a physician assistant.
When Sam dropped her off at the convention center, Lisa was among the first girls through the door. Most had no idea what they were in for.
“You can tell when they’re on their way up the escalator that many of them are thinking, ‘This is hand-me-down stuff,’ because that’s what they’re accustomed to,” explains Dr. Anissa McNeil, a Glamour Gowns Committee member, a CASA, a CASA of Los Angeles board member, and a former foster child. “But then they come upstairs and they see these are brand-new dresses. They see that they can choose any shoes they want. They can pick out a purse and jewelry. Their faces are glowing. Many of them walk out in tears.”
There were so many options this year, in fact, that for a while Lisa couldn’t make a decision. Then she found it—a long, light-blue dress with a halter top and sparkles running its length. She picked out shoes with five-inch heels and more sparkles to match, then a purse, jewelry, undergarments, and cosmetics to complete the outfit. A volunteer seamstress tailored her dress on the spot, a volunteer stylist cut her hair and did her makeup, and a volunteer personal shopper—who happened to be CASA of Los Angeles’s director of volunteer services, Lynne Gabriel—carried all her bags.
“It was like a blessing, fabulous,” Lisa says. “On top of everything, Lynne took me to the nail shop.”