NEW PORT RICHEY
On a recent afternoon downtown, minutes from City Hall, across from the post office, and next door to the Tennis On Tour engraving shop, Catrina Claire, 34, was trying to fall in love with a prom dress. It would be her very first one.
Spread out before her in the Merry Go-Round bridal consignment shop's cramped room were a couple of lacy, form-fitting gowns. She glanced at one, then the other, then stared wistfully back at an ivory-and-lace confection she had picked out earlier. That one had been almost perfect, but no matter how she smoothed and stretched it, the dress just didn't fit.
So she tried the others on. They were too small, her teachers at the Red Apple Adult Training Center agreed; besides, they seemed too dowdy on her.
Finally, the shop's owner, Sharon Couillard-Yon, rummaged through her racks and emerged with a floor-length black velvet gown, topped with a matching jacket and edged with small rhinestones.
"Just try it," Couillard-Yon urged her.
Claire's face crossed from skepticism to delight.
The dress draped well. Its jacket could be used for a holiday party. Its rhinestones — what Claire calls the "bling" or the "pizzazz" — sparkled. And on Friday, Claire wore it to her first prom.
Friday's daytime dance, held in donated space at the Elks Lodge on Congress Street with donated food, decorations, a photographer and a limo, was also Red Apple's first prom. The nonprofit school trains developmentally disabled adults in daily living skills, such as cooking or counting change — "things you and I take for granted," as instructor's aide Katina John put it.
Red Apple staffers say their students, who range in age from 18 to 65, should have as many normal experiences as possible. That's why executive director Kerry Rondeau agreed almost immediately when Claire, who heads the Red Apple student council, suggested last month that the school hold a prom.
Most of the school's 116 students had never been to a prom. And if they were going to have one, Red Apple staff decided, it would be as close to a traditional prom as possible.
So Rondeau and her staff asked the community for help.
"It's our first annual Red Apple prom," Rondeau said she told friends, relatives and acquaintances through Facebook and word-of-mouth, "and it's for some special people."
Within a few weeks of hatching the idea, Red Apple's staff and students saw a flood of donations.
Rondeau says Red Apple received about $700 in cash and gift cards, as well as unexpected help of every kind.
One woman hand-made blue and silver centerpieces in keeping with the prom's theme, "Catch a Falling Star." Hairdressers from Bene's International School of Beauty styled the women's hair Friday morning. A Red Apple teacher's aunt offered to DJ the dance, and another staff member's son volunteered to chauffeur students from the school to the Elks Lodge in his limousine, 15 at a time.
Merry Go-Round and other bridal shops donated shoes, jewelry and scarves and sold prom dresses to the students at deep discounts. Another store sold Red Apple 150 matching blue vests and bowties for $20 and shirts for $1 each.
Claire, who came to Red Apple in 2007 and lives independently, was one of the few students who made a trip off campus to find her dress. Weeks before Friday, she had already decided how she wanted her hair styled: in a curly updo with tendrils framing her soft, round face.
Unlike some of the other students, there was no question about whom she would bring as a date: her boyfriend, Marshall Roberts, another Red Apple student who asked Claire to the prom through Facebook.
Roberts wore a silver shirt and a black vest and tie to match Claire's dress — and his service dog, Archie, got a black tie.
The outpouring of support has been gratifying and a little unexpected, Rondeau said, because no other Red Apple event has ever generated so many donations.
"I think it's the whole experience thing — the fact that someone in their 30s has never experienced a prom and now they have the opportunity to do so," she said last week, standing in the Red Apple room where staffers hung the donated dresses. Teachers sorted the gowns by size and style, then helped the students choose the ones that would become theirs.
For the staff at Red Apple, the prom has touched on memories of their own proms. Besides helping the students pick out their formalwear, the teachers chose the prom king, queen and court (based on good behavior), decorated the hall and cooked the chicken alfredo lunch.
The playlist, which includes everything from the Village People's YMCA to David Cook's The Time of My Life and which ends with Jon Bon Jovi's Never Say Goodbye, was partly their creation.
They even pasted up their old prom photos and asked their students to try to identify them.
The Pasco people who donated to the Red Apple prom are nostalgic for their own proms, too.
Couillard-Yon says she will never forget the dress she wore to her 1966 senior prom in Queens, New York — a yellow Swiss dot gown with a sash and pencil skirt she bought for $29.
"When I heard about this, I thought, 'If other schools are having a prom, why not?' " Couillard-Yon said. "These people are trying to make a better life for themselves."