TAMPA — Maria Carla Fleitas couldn’t make it to the mirror before she started tearing up.
Fleitas, 17, had just picked out a blush, A-line, floor-length gown for her senior prom next month at Leto High School. She walked to the mirror to inspect the dress with an embellished silver waist. When she saw fashion director Monte Durham of TLC’s Say Yes to the Dress: Atlanta, she broke into a smile.
"I feel like a princess," Fleitas told him. "I want to feel like this all the time."
Durham and a crew of volunteers from TLC and AT&T hosted the network’s Say Yes to the Prom event at Raymond James Stadium on Monday. Now in its 7th year, the philanthropic initiative brings thousands of dresses, tuxes, accessories and shoes to underserved, academically high-achieving students around the country for a day of worry-free shopping. Tampa was the third stop for the event; it was in Miami last week and moves on to Houston next. The Say Yes to the Prom special, filmed at a New York City charter school that won last year’s essay contest, airs 9 p.m. Saturday on TLC. The students at Inwood Academy also got to shop for their dream looks, and the network hosted the school’s first prom. Tampa will not be featured on the show.
Just like on Say Yes to the Dress: Atlanta, Durham offered his "Monte Mirror Moments" with every student who wanted to meet him and "say yes" to their prom look.
"I grew up struggling financially to get dressed and to go to things, so I understand the plight of these young and talented students," Durham said. "It pulls at my heartstrings."
While Macy’s and Men’s Warehouse provided the attire and accessories, Paul Mitchell Schools students were also on hand for hair and makeup tutorials.
"Some of the stories I usually hear are, ‘I never thought I’d ever go to prom’ or ‘I feel like a princess’ and ‘I can’t believe this is happening to me, just pinch me,’" Durham said. "You can imagine how overwhelming this is."
Fleitas was one of about 250 Hillsborough high school students who came to the stadium to pick out their dream prom looks, free of charge. The other participating schools include Chamberlain High, Brandon High, Spoto High and Middleton High.
Each high school chose about 50 students to participate. Most come from low-income families but are in the top of their class with high GPAs and multiple extra-curricular activities.
"Not only are we motivating and inspiring, we’re encouraging these students to continue on with their education," Durham said.
Fleitas moved to the U.S. from Cuba about three years ago with her mom. Her dad joined them about a year ago. She said they left Cuba because her sister was already living here, but also because her parents saw more opportunity for Fleitas to succeed. She’s now one of the top students in her class and has plans to go to the University of South Florida in the fall. She’s hoping to get into the pre-med program. Her dream is to become a pediatrician.
"We don’t have dances in Cuba," she said. "This is like the dream of every Cuban girl."
While Fleitas moved on to pick out shoes and accessories, other students got advice from Durham on tux cut, color and pocket squares. Others heeded their mothers’ advice on dress styles.
Giovanni Giron opted for a classic, black and white Vera Wang tux. Giron, 17, is a first-generation American with parents from Colombia. He’s "heavily involved" with five sports and is senior vice president of his class.
"Prom night is our night to stand out," he said. "Our parents might not be able to afford this, but we’ve worked hard and it feels like we’re being rewarded."
Bethany Pimentel, 17, started out thumbing through angelic, pastel dresses with simple embroidery before setting on a silver and navy mermaid-style gown with a lace overlay.
"I listened to my mom; she always says to try on tighter dresses," she said. "And I love this."
Fleitas’ final prom look included a simple gray clutch and earrings, a necklace and a bracelet that all matched her dress. A stylist with Paul Mitchell Schools put her golden blonde hair in soft curls and sent her home with styling tips and products to try.
After getting an extra-long hug from Durham, she talked about how she used to watch a lot of teen movies that featured proms when she lived in Cuba. Monday’s event made her feel like she was in one of those movies.
For every person who helped her on Monday, she had a warm smile and a few more tears.
"Thank you for making me feel like this," she told them. "I didn’t have that fairy tale experience, but now I will."
Contact Chelsea Tatham at [email protected] Follow @chelseatatham.