A rite of passage, without the cost

Homecoming on a budget

Desiree Banton, 16, modeled the dress she'll wear to the homecoming dance. Many high schools are scaling back. Desiree Banton, 16, modeled the dress she'll wear to the homecoming dance. Many high schools are scaling back. (Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press)
By Christine Armario
Associated Press / November 21, 2008
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POMPANO BEACH, Fla. - Like girls sifting through dresses at upscale retailers, the teens milled among aisles of sparkling pastel- and florescent-hued homecoming gowns, stepping into dressing rooms to try them on and then modeling them before their mothers.

But it wasn't a day at the mall. The girls were at a South Florida flea market, where the charity Becca's Closet gives used and new gowns to high school students unable to afford their own. One mother said her hours as a nurse's aide had been cut. Another whose mortgage payment had increased said she felt humiliated to ask for help.

"I heard money was really tight, especially in our household," said Desiree Banton, a 16-year-old who attends a technical school and was trying on peach, lime green and bright blue gowns. "And my birthday is around the same week, so I knew it was going to be really difficult to get everything done for homecoming."

Because of the economic downturn, the homecoming dance, that rite of passage that has become increasingly extravagant in recent years, is being scaled back at many high schools nationwide.

Teens accustomed to spending hundreds of dollars on dresses and suits, a pricey dinner and limousine ride are now making their own decorations, soliciting donations for food and gowns and, in some cases, reconsidering the ritzy ballroom in favor of the gym.

Becca's Closet, with chapters around the country, and similar charities say they are seeing more families this year that previously could afford the expense. Volunteers at its flagship branch in Broward County, where families have been particularly hard hit by the housing crisis, say they have been flooded with double the number of requests for dresses.

"We're seeing people who, you know, wouldn't typically be needing help," said Pam Kirtman, who runs the group with her husband in memory of their daughter, who was killed in a 2003 car accident when she was 16.

The budget squeezing comes at a time when homecoming dances have been growing, and teen parties in general - from proms to sweet sixteens - are more elaborate: Recent homecomings were held in hotels instead of school gyms, and ticket prices have hit $50.

"Homecoming is definitely growing each year," said Jacquie Downey, a business director at Stumps Spirit, an Indiana-based party supply company.

Rather than just a football game and dance, the entire community is becoming involved, and the school has special activities every day of the week.

But this year, celebrations are shaping up differently.

Stumps Spirits, which sells homecoming and prom supplies to schools across the country, says students are shopping for the best sale, using their own art department to help with decorations and skipping the party planner.

"It's definitely a tighter budget," Downey said.

Emily Petway, a high school band director who runs a Becca's Closet chapter outside Atlanta, said she's been visited by students she didn't know were struggling. Their parents whisper, "I've never done anything like this before."

"That story I've heard a lot," she said. "When a dress costs $150 and you're having to choose between sending your senior daughter to prom and groceries, it's really hard."

At Tampa's Freedom High School, students spent $40,000 renting a ballroom at the Embassy Suites hotel last year. This year, they rented an exhibit area at the city's Museum of Science and Industry for under $15,000. They were able to reduce the ticket price from $55 to $40.

At nearby Jefferson High School, students saved $10,000 by holding their dance at the school instead of the city's pro football stadium. They hired a disc jockey and provided purchased and donated food from area restaurants. Ticket prices were cut from $50 a person to $25.

Some students are opting out completely. Hampton High School in Virginia canceled its homecoming dance because organizers couldn't sell enough $7 tickets. Principal Myra Chambers said to break even, about 350 to 400 of the school's 1,600 students had to attend - a number that hasn't been difficult to reach in years past. This year, only about 95 students bought tickets.

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