Once a year, A Family for Every Child, an Oregon-based nonprofit that works to place foster children in permanent homes, hosts its Princess for a Day fundraiser. For $50, participants get pampered and primped, glittered and gifted with goody bags and gowns and an elegant tea followed by ice cream sundaes and a dance with a handsome prince from a college fraternity. Kids in foster care get to attend for free.
"This is stupid," a teen in glasses muttered to her friend as she entered a conference room full of perfumed beauticians wielding curling irons. I, too, had my doubts. Not every girl wants to be a princess, and these teens looked old enough to grasp the fact that a morning of splendor can't erase neglect, hunger and fear.
Still, as the slouching teen chose a plastic silver tiara from the sparkling selection on a table, I found myself hoping for magical transformation.
Hairspray fizzled through the room like fairy dust, and Disney heroines crooned from a boom box as a stylist swept up curls. Twin five-year olds in white sundresses sat at the table beside the teen, rigid and unsmiling as two women spun their chocolate-brown bobs into ringlets. Under other circumstances, laughter and squeals might have filled the room. The young faces around me looked solemn.
Oregon has over 10,000 foster children, separated from their biological families because of drug addiction, mental illness and poverty. Some return home but others -- about 25 percent -- find themselves legally relinquished by parents and shuttled between foster families and residential treatment centers until they turn 18. It is these children that A Family for Every Teen serves, with the goal of offering them stability and support.
I followed the slouching teen, her curls momentarily tamed beneath a tiara, to another room full of donated prom dresses and party shoes. The teenager yanked an armful of gowns off a rack and paused to glance at a woman who helped a little girl zip up a pink frock. "Thank you, Mommy." At the sound of the child¹s voice, the teen snorted and disappeared into a makeshift dressing room, kicking her jeans out from under the curtain with one bare foot.
I wondered if her story resembled what a young woman in foster care told me a few years back. "Natalie Rose" had agreed to talk with me about her experience for a magazine article. She recounted how she¹d lived in 10 different foster homes over 11 years, and was just four when her mother dropped her off at a local residence for children in crisis: "My mom came over and gave me a backpack and a purple hat with Scooby Doo on it, and she left me there. She said, 'Here, I might not ever see you again.' So I went into foster care."
The teen with the omnipresent scowl emerged from the dressing room in a black and white polka dot sheath and green fairy wings. Volunteers applauded; they and donors devote weeks, and sometimes months to ensure the success of Princess for a Day. Each girl gets to keep her dress, shoes, and accessories. Professional photographers provide each participant with a portrait mounted in a gilt-edged cardboard frame. I wondered if girls display the pictures proudly on a bedside table or tuck them away at the bottom of a dresser, a bittersweet memento.
The slouching teen watched as her blond friend, who'd exchanged a stained miniskirt for a short satin dress, sat for her portrait with a queenly ferocity. Then both girls ventured into the ballroom where a young man in a tuxedo announced their names into a microphone. At linen-covered tables surrounding a dance floor, girls dined with their caretakers on tiny ham and cheese sandwiches and Rice Krispies petit fours. A sorority girl danced with three devoted handmaidens to Sleeping Beauty's "Once Upon a Dream." Overcome by ballads and hot fudge, a taffeta-bound toddler squalled.
Not every girl wants to be a princess. But given the chance, even the most reluctant among over 400,000 foster children in this country may discover royalty. As I left the ballroom, the bespectacled teen in fairy wings pushed past me and collapsed in the photographer¹s chair in front of a Grecian backdrop. Her lips twisted into a sarcastic smile as she stared down at her sparkly green flip-flops. "Sit up," the photographer urged. "Smile."
Suddenly, the young woman straightened and drew her shoulders back. She looked into the camera and flashed a saucy grin, revealing a missing back tooth along with a heart-wrenching, diaphanous hope.
Melissa Hart is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is the author of the memoir, Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood, and teaches for the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon.