“Necessity is often the spur to genius.” -Honore de Balzac
Dressed by West — the ingenious idea of Lesley West — was prompted by Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of the city of New Orleans in 2005.
At the time, her husband, David West, was playing for the New Orleans Hornets, and the couple witnessed the devastation of the storm up close and personal. According to a Huffington Post report, Hurricane Katrina claimed “nearly 2,000 lives, displaced more than a million people along the Gulf Coast from their homes, and caused significant damage to 110 of the city’s 126 public schools — some of which were never replaced.”
In the face of such odds, it is easy to see why sending teenagers to prom would be the furthest thing from many parents’ minds; they were fighting for their families’ basic survival. But what better way to revive a semblance of normalcy than sending kids to prom?
At minimum, prom would give the teens of New Orleans a break from the hardships they faced. On a grander scale, prom would give them memories to last a lifetime.
But there were major obstacles to bringing prom to fruition, such as finding suitable locations and outfitting teens in formal attire. For so many who were displaced and relying on food banks to feed their families, buying prom dresses was out of the question. People simply could not afford them.
One day at Dillard’s, West noticed that dresses had been drastically discounted. “There were $200 to $300 (dresses) on a 90 percent off rack,” she said. “I ended up buying 800 dresses from Dillard’s for $12 apiece.”
And that is how Dressed by West began.
When her husband was traded to the Pacers, West brought Dressed by West with her to Indiana. During the third year of the event, in Indianapolis, West said: “When I saw the number of girls that could not afford to go to the prom simply because of the cost of a dress, I knew I had to help. This is always one of the most rewarding days of the year for our family.”
And when her husband moved on to San Antonio to play for the Spurs, West brought Dressed by West with her to Texas.
Now, living in the Bay Area while her husband plays for the Golden State Warriors, West is helping girls in Oakland attend prom, too. This year’s Dressed by West event was held at Oakland High School on Saturday.
Although the event was supported by the Warriors’ organization, Oakland Unified School District and Oakland Public Education Fund, “a non-profit group that supports schools,” West arrived in Oakland prepared — bringing some 1,000 dresses with her when their family moved from Texas.
And hundreds of girls signing up for Saturday’s dress giveaway confirmed West’s hunch that there would be great need in the East Bay.
The Oakland High School gym was converted into a boutique, and dresses were brought in by the truckload. Volunteers ushered the girls in, 50 at a time, helped them make selections, and guided them to fitting rooms that had been outfitted with velvet curtains.
When the girls of Oakland dance the night away on their upcoming prom nights, hopefully they will feel as beautiful as they look in the their Dressed by West gowns. And, years from now, when they look back on their high school experiences, hopefully their memories will be all the sweeter knowing they made it to prom because of the smarts, hard work and thoughtfulness of a very special woman: Lesley West. Perhaps their memories of this very special time will influence future education and career choices.
For those of us who are well beyond our prom years, perhaps we can cherish this reminder that many societal norms cost money and — if not for people like Lesley West — many people are repeatedly left marginalized and disenfranchised.
Maybe we can also use West’s example to inspire us to identify needs in our own communities or families and find inventive ways to meet them.