Article originally appeared in the Park Labrea News on March 27, 2014.
By Aaron Blevins
For more than 350 high school girls in the Los Angeles County foster care system, Saturday is primed to be a day of glitz and glamour, as volunteers will be tending to their every need during the “Glamour Gowns” event at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
The event, which has been held for at least the last 10 years, will provide formal gowns, shoes, jewelry and more from major designers to the young women for free in preparation for their proms and spring formals.
“It’s like being Cinderella in a dressing room,” Anissa McNeil, one of the organizers, said of the event. McNeil serves as a CASA (court appoint special advocate), which is a volunteer who advocates for children in the foster care system. CASA of Los Angeles, as well as a group of other volunteers, is hosting the annual event.
Oftentimes, financial circumstances prevent young women in foster care from enjoying a day of shopping prior to a formal dance, McNeil said. The government funding provided to foster parents and representatives of group homes is usually only enough to provide the children with necessities — negating the possibility of a full prom experience, she said.
“Glamour Gowns” affords them that opportunity, allowing the young women to seek the prom dress they want and the shoes and accessories that match oh so well, McNeil said.
“But it’s way more than just the material items,” she said, adding that 314 volunteers will be on hand to serve as their personal shoppers. McNeil said many of the young women have never received that treatment — even for one day. The event provides “that Nordstrom experience, that Saks Fifth Avenue experience.”
Organizers have already compiled an array of attire, and the personal shoppers will hold items as the young women look through the inventory. McNeil said seamstresses, who are among the top of their field, will also be on hand. She said the girls love the opportunity.
“They’re just outdone,” McNeil added.
She knows their struggles first-hand, having grown up in the foster care system. McNeil said she became homeless at 6 years old, and wound up living with her grandmother. Children in the foster care system must recognize that they are forced to navigate life on their own, for the most part, she said.
“But they’ve got to manage this,” McNeil said, adding that the children are burdened with a huge responsibility. She tries to explain to children that “today is not your tomorrow.”
Now, McNeil has been a CASA for 10 years and serves as a board member for the organization. She is also on the committee for “Glamour Gowns”, and has been involved with the event for four years.
“It’s a wonderful, wonderful day — a day of glamour, really,” McNeil added.
She said watching the young girls get excited to pick out a prom dress is always a moving experience.
“It’s powerful,” McNeil said. “I’m extremely grateful to serve as a part of the committee and extremely grateful that my lifestyle affords me the ability to be a CASA.”
More than 28,000 children are under the jurisdiction of the dependency court in L.A. County, and more than 17,000 children are in the county’s foster care system. Approximately 600 CASAs advocate on their behalf. McNeil said the organization is trying to build up to 1,000 special advocates.
“I would say it’s essential. Every child deserves the opportunity to have someone in this world that cares for them, that will look out for them, that will have their best interests at heart,” she added.
McNeil told the story of one of her clients. The child was involved in a meeting with a group of individuals, and the meeting had become contentious, she said. McNeil said the student became angry and pointed at her, saying that she’s the only person who cared for him for free.
She said most children are born into unconditional love, but that is not always the case with foster youth. McNeil encouraged individuals to become a CASA and improve the lives of foster children.
“Any way that you can get involved to help children who have no one else to help them and defend them and encourage them, please get involved,” she said. “And it’s so rewarding. What you get is priceless.”
While the organization cannot accommodate any more participants, residents can support the event — and the organization — by calling (323) 859-2888 or visiting www.casala.org. To learn more about becoming a CASA, visit www.casala.org/volunteer.