Madison Stewart, a freckled Tavares High School senior, smoothed her dress as a woman adorned each of her pink toenails with a strip of glittery silver paint. The colors matched perfectly her dress, a flowing strapless piece laden with glitter that ran to the floor.
Moments earlier she’d changed from her usual camouflage T-shirt and shorts into the flowing gown she would wear to Saturday’s senior prom. Soft music played at the spa while her fingernails were painted and 18-year-old Stewart snapped a selfie of her expression on an iPhone.
“I just want to stay in my dress for the rest of the time,” she said. “I don’t want to take it off.”
It was a moment she never thought she’d have.
Last year Stewart arrived to prom in a borrowed dress. Her mom, then a 38-year-old manager at a local golf-course shop, had funded much of the evening paying for Stewart’s high heels and other costs. The next day Stewart watched her mother suffer a fatal heart attack. Her death devastated Stewart, her mother’s youngest child, but Stewart thinks the tragedy has helped her become a stronger woman.
But without her mother this school year, Stewart was sure a senior prom was not to be. And while other high-school students planned for the day, Stewart planned on staying home alone.
“Money was an issue. A really big issue,” she said. “After I lost mom, we’ve been struggling a lot.”
A local group of women and business supporters, however, had different plans for her. Stewart was one of some 36 girls this year to receive free prom dresses, makeovers, a limo ride, spa treatments and paid prom tickets. The effort is sponsored by a group called the Abracadabra Foundation established by a trio of longtime Eustis High School friends. Since 2009 the group has helped nearly 200 Lake County girls considered homeless or disadvantaged attend prom. The group has collected about 500 dresses for girls and solicited donations from local businesses each year. The project costs about $4,000. The money comes from small donations from business sponsors as well as family and friends.
One of the group’s founders is Asha Dampier, a 33-year-old Eustis mom who owns a wedding-planning business and sells elevators for an Orlando company. Dampier — aided by co-founders Yolanda Lang and Mary Salter — thinks the “glitz-and-glam” event is meant to give girls a moment to cling to when “life happens.”
“It’s just a moment to escape what’s going on with their life at the time,” she said. “It’s a day for them to escape and feel like a princess.”
The girls are nominated based on need by their schools for the project, but the group is not all just about pretty dresses. This year, the friends organized a girls-only college tour taking 28 teen girls across three states to visit colleges. They also offer small, yearly mentoring retreats where girls can talk openly about topics such as Miley Cyrus’ infamous “twerking” episode and female stereotypes. Dampier and her counterparts hope Abracadabra’s work will help girls from low-income families build confidence and self-esteem.
Saturday, while Stewart’s fingernails were drying, Dampier offered her an impromptu lesson on business networking, explaining to her that most people want to help others. Stewart hugged Dampier, thanking her for the group’s sponsorship. Stewart, who wore her mother’s pink-sapphire ring, told Dampier she hopes to go to Lake-Sumter State College, which her mother attended, and work with her mother’s old employer while saving money for more schooling.