As the clock ticked closer to 6 p.m. last Saturday, the seven put the finishing touches to their hair and makeup and headed to a room where volunteers waited to serve them dinner.
They dined on chicken, rice and green beans and talked with family members before heading to the hotel lobby, then one by one made their way down the red carpet to await their chauffeurs.
It was prom night, and by some luck of the draw, seven Stone Mountain High School seniors would soon be leaving the Northlake Holiday Inn en route to Atlantic Station’s Twelve Hotel to dance the night away.
It might not have happened had it not been for 27-year-old Keana Millar of Decatur, founder and CEO of the Lucky 7 Prom Experience, and an army of volunteers.
Millar, an English teacher at Utopian Academy for the Arts, was a junior at Valdosta State University when a friend told her she would not have been able to attend her high school prom without the help of a good Samaritan. She was shocked but it wasn’t long, through volunteer efforts, that Millar learned that that was the experience of a lot of high school seniors.
But for her, prom was simply a rite of passage.
“If you were a senior, you went to prom. No problem,” she said. “I started to learn that a lot of things I thought were common wasn’t for a lot of people.”
A lot has changed since most of us went to prom. Nowadays seniors and their parents can easily rack up hundreds of dollars in prom-related expenses.
According to a 2015 Visa survey, its most recent, the average U.S. family planned to spend about $919 on their teen’s prom, with parents covering as much as 73% of the costs. Families with incomes below $25,000, it said, spend the most, shelling out as much as $1,393, while families with income below $50,000 planned to spend $1,109 and those with income over $50,000 planned to spend an average of $799.
A Carver High School senior, unable to pay $500 in senior dues, touched off a debate early last month over what she called unnecessary costs. The tally included $200 just for entry into the prom.
Millar graduated from Valdosta State in 2012, but she never forgot that while prom was a given for her, the costs made it an impossibility for a lot of other high school seniors. She wanted to do something to help.
While still grieving the death of her father in 2013, Lucky 7, a logo and a mission to pay program expenses for seven deserving students dropped in her spirit.
She was working at the Gate City Nursery Center when she shared her vision one day with a fellow teacher.
Great idea, she told Millar. Eighty percent of students at her daughter’s school were economically disadvantaged. Millar could start there. Counselors and social workers suggested students who would benefit and enlisted other school staff to help identify deserving seniors who had a 2.0 GPA or better and couldn’t afford the cost of attending their prom.
More than 20 students applied. Millar chose the lucky seven.
That was in 2014. In 2015, she chose seven girls and seven boys. Every year since then, she has chosen just seven but a mix of girls and boys from a single school. This year, the lucky seven were Jevon Calvin, sisters Lajoie and Nyota Mukuba, Bridget Wilson, Rayanna Vilera, Chauncey Holt, and Bawi Parr, who was also the recipient of a $500 Lucky 7 scholarship.
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To be sure, Millar isn’t the only one trying to make sure underprivileged students are not left out of this end-of-the-year activity. Nonprofits like Operation Prom and the Enchanted Closet also provide low-income students with free formalwear.
And last month, the Lady Hawks — players’ wives, mothers and significant others — hosted a “Say Yes to the Prom Dress” event providing free prom dresses and accessories to 20 high school teens who couldn’t otherwise afford them.
Senior year is a tough one. Everybody knows that. At a time when most families are worried about the escalating costs of college, the added costs of a dress, tuxedo rental, flowers, hair, makeup and prom tickets can devastate almost any family budget.
Jevon Calvin knows what that’s like. Without Millar and Lucky 7, prom would’ve been out of his reach.
“Honestly, if my mom hadn’t been able to pay, I would not have gone, but God gifted me with this wonderful person right here,” he said, referring to Millar.
Calvin, 18, is a straight-A student, a standout linebacker for the Stone Mountain High School Pirates with dreams of teaching mathematical sciences on the college level if he isn’t drafted into the National Football League first.
Because his mom is single with two others to look after, he never would have added the stress of paying for prom to her list of things to do.
When he learned in March he was one of Millar’s Lucky 7, he said, “On the outside, I had to maintain composure, but in the inside, I was jumping around like a little schoolgirl.”
Last Saturday night with his date Ladyy Humphries on his arm, he felt the same way. Only better.
He didn’t have a care in the world. That’s how every senior should feel on prom night.
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