A night to remember; With support from the community, Gerard Academy residents head off to prom

Published 9:20 am Friday, March 1, 2019

Editor’s Note: To respect the privacy of residents at Gerard Academy, the Austin Daily Herald will not identify residents by name in the story.

Behind the snow covered trees, a fairytale was coming true for Gerard Academy residents as they prepared for a ball of their own — prom night.

About two decades ago, prom at Gerard was more simple. A few dresses would be gathered from the Salvation Army or donated, and the dance would be held downstairs at the academy.

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However, about four years ago the prom evolved into a formal affair, thanks in part to the community’s contributions and assistance in pulling together a wondrous evening at the Hormel Historic Home.

From Old Mill Restaurant catering the dinner, to the Hardy Geranium creating floral centerpieces (and donating them to the occasion at no charge) to Belles and Beaus donating many of their formal dresses before the store’s closing, Nicolei Dudycha, Gerard Academy communications coordinator, felt overwhelmed with gratitude at Austin’s willingness to make Gerard Academy’s prom, a night to remember.

“It’s unbelievable that the community would rally around us like this,” Dudycha said. “We’re so grateful for the generosity that’s been shown to us.”

A wonderful opportunity

Gerard Academy is a residential facility treating children from ages 6 to 19 with emotional and behavioral issues.

Many of these residents have known and faced trauma and are now getting the love and support they need to cope with their experiences and heal.

As a way to help make their stay at Gerard Academy more homey and comfortable, events like prom are organized by staff to help residents enjoy what any other teen gets to attend during their school years.

A Gerard Academy resident sits as Ronissia Gondao-Bengba does her hair in preparation for the Academy’s prom later that night. Ronissia Gondao-Bengba

“A lot of our residents don’t get that experience,” Dudycha said. “We do these things to make this place as homelike as possible.”

That’s where the Austin community stepped in. Over the years, Gerard Academy accumulated an extensive collection of over 100 prom dresses that were donated by various businesses and members of the community including a large number of dresses from Belles and Beaus before its closure. From jeweled-tone to pastel shades, there was bound to be one perfect dress for each student, whether it’d be a fairy-tale princess gown of shimmering tulle to a sassy short dress with plenty of fun attitude,

After being approached about donating dresses for prom several years ago, Marie Fryer, retired and former owner of Belles and Beaus, also wanted to help with fittings and alterations to help make each girl’s prom dress even more perfect.

“I think this is a wonderful opportunity for these girls,” Fryer said. “Some may not have been able to give much thought about going to prom and many of them are economically challenged. This would’ve been out of the picture for them. People have donated these dresses to take away the cost and so the residents can go enjoy themselves. I think it’s a wonderful gift from many people for these girls.”

Fryer felt connected to the residents while doing the alterations and fittings with the girls. After the initial work, she returned a second time to follow up with the girls and checking to see if everything was perfect for their special night.

A Gerard Academy resident applies make-up as she gets ready for the night’s prom Wednesday afternoon.

“I’ve had a lot of fun with this,” Fryer said. “It was heartwarming to see them look at themselves in the mirror like they couldn’t believe it. It was a very, very special moment with each of the girls. You could tell they were grateful, excited and that they couldn’t believe that this was happening for them.”

One resident chose an ocean blue dress with straps. She doesn’t describe herself as a “girly girl” but after trying on the dress, she felt like a princess getting ready for the ball, with the dancing.

“Blue is my go-to-color. It fits really good,” the 16-year-old said. “We don’t really get to do this on a daily basis. I like getting my hair and makeup done. I love to dance and it’s something that I haven’t gotten to do in a while. It’s a nice change.”

Another student recalled the exact moment when she found her dress. A beautiful, strapless guava pink dress with a jewel-encrusted bodice, it was a gown the 16-year-old never imagined she would ever wear. However, one look at her reflection changed her perspective completely: she was a beautiful young lady.

“I usually cover my arms,” she said. “I love it. I just forgot about my insecurities. I felt beautiful.”

A night to remember

Wednesday afternoon was a hectic, but exciting day for Gerard residents. Prom was finally here. After classes at New Dominion School, the girls filed into the basement of the academy, where make-up artists from Tzone by Tracy laid out their eyeshadows, contouring and highlighting palettes and foundations.

Several businesses stepped forward to help make these residents feel special on the night of their prom by donating their time and expertise on each student. For some, this marked the first time they visited Gerard Academy.

A pair of residents from Gerard dance to a slower tune during Gerard Academy’s prom Wednesday night at the Hormel Historic Home.

“This color would look so pretty on you,” said Tracy Ourada, owner of Tzone by Tracy, to one of the girls while dabbing a little bit of eyeshadow onto her eyelids.“I love making these girls feel confident by pointing out their beautiful features.”

While some were getting their faces prepped for some glowing makeup, hair stylists from Sterling Beauty Salon were already hard at work creating a hairstyle that flattered each student. Scattered on tables were some curling irons, hair pins and brushes. There was nervous, but excited chatter breaking out from several girls situated in chairs. Their curls carefully secured, and braids meticulously tucked into elegant updos, this would be the first time for many of these residents to have a complete glam makeover.

“So far, so good,” said Carol Callahan, owner of Sterling Beauty. “The girls are so excited. We wanted to make this experience beautiful for them. It’s prom!”

A flower lays on the table at the Hormel Historic Home as residents from Gerard Academy dance during their prom Wednesday night.

Sitting in Callahan’s chair was a 17-year-old student who wanted “a surprise” for her hairstyle. Being secretive about her dress color and style, the girl felt excited about heading off to prom. Having done studio dance several years ago, the girl was excited to be able to dance with friends.

“I just feel really good,” she said. “I feel like a princess. This is gonna be a new experience for me. I love to dance, and I love it. Prom’s going to be really fun.”

Just as Callahan was finishing her masterpiece, a 16-year-old student who came dressed in a floor-length navy blue gown with sequined embellishments and an elaborate neck piece, was getting the last touches done to her hairstyle. She sat carefully as her hair was curled and braided, smiling nervously into her reflection. This resident was ready for prom.

“I feel beautiful,” she said.