BELFAST, Maine — Keely O’Connell, who grew up in Belfast, teaches school in Venetie, a small Athabascan village in Alaska that is above the Arctic Circle and not accessible by road.
“When I got here on Jan. 3, we had about three hours of daylight in the middle of the day,” she said in recent telephone interview from her home. “Now we don’t have any night. I love it here. It is incredibly remote and incredibly beautiful. It’s a really unbelievable place.”
But even though the 200-person town is a world away from the hustle, bustle and conveniences of the lower 48, the girls in her school dreamed of bringing one teenage tradition from the south to the north — the prom.
O’Connell said she was “kind of resistant” to the idea at first. By the time they started talking about it, it was March, and there was no extra student activities money left in the school.The school was small, with just 65 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. And anything special, such as pretty dresses or corsages, would need to be ordered a month in advance.
“It felt like a stretch,” she said. “We had to fundraise, and in a tiny village, that’s not easy to do.”
But O’Connell reckoned that without the Cinderella Project of Maine, a Belfast-based nonprofit organization that aims to unite Maine teens with free prom dresses. In return, the group asks the girls to pay the favor forward by volunteering or just doing something nice for someone else.
O’Connell’s dad, Kevin O’Connell, contacted the Cinderella Project to ask for help getting dresses in a hurry. Tabitha Lowe, the community projects manager for the organization, said that because the group’s service area is just Maine, she felt sad that she couldn’t directly help.
“I knew it was a worthy project,” Lowe said. “But we ask the girls to pay it forward, and I started to wonder if there was a way we could organize the high school girls to get the dresses together. I said, ‘I don’t want to say no.’”
The teens from Belfast Area High School said yes, and they went to Hussey’s General Store in Windsor to pick up some donated dresses. Then Lowe and other “fairy godmothers” went through those dresses and matched dresses to the size information Keely O’Connell sent about her girls.
That wasn’t so easy, the teacher said.
“I estimated sizes. My girls don’t really know their sizes. They don’t get to go shopping,” O’Connell said. “I looked at them and said, ‘Well, I guess you’re probably a 10.’”
Three days later, a giant flat-rate mailer box arrived in Venetie, packed with 22 beautiful gowns. The Belfast fairy godmothers had included nine extra dresses in case they didn’t have the sizes right, which O’Connell said have been put away for next year’s prom.
“Opening the box was just the most beautiful thing,” she said. “The noise that the girls made blew my mind. It was so adorable. I opened the box, and it was just an explosion of happy noise. They were so excited. We had to rush to the locker room to try on dresses. It was a lot of fun.”
Her students generally wear jeans and hooded sweatshirts, and at first, wearing glittery, pretty dresses made them feel shy. When they got on a chair and wiggled around in front of the mirror — there are no full-length mirrors in the village — it took them aback.
“They see movies. They have the idea,” O’Connell said of prom dresses. “They were just surprised, I think, that they looked like that.”
A few days later, the girls took showers at her house — it is one of only three buildings in the village with running water — and donned the dresses. They went to the gym they had decorated with balloons, lights and hanging stars. There, they spun music, danced and played laser tag.
The school opened up the dance to grades seven through 12, but for the first couple of hours, only one boy attended, O’Connell said, and then a few more trickled in the door. One of the seventh-graders brought a 12-inch grayling fish he had caught to the prom, so it could have a good time, too.
“I told him it was my date,” O’Connell said. “The prom was so much fun. I haven’t had that much fun in a long time.”
She said that the improbable $600 prom, held in a subsistence village where people hunt geese, ducks and migratory caribou and go to the woods to get wood to survive in the winters, meant everything to the girls. The box of dresses sent from faraway Maine helped to make it all possible.
“Going to Fairbanks to go shopping for a prom dress is really, really out of the question,” she said. “I was so thrilled and grateful, because I had girls I knew wouldn’t be able to find a dress otherwise, and this was their cherished dream.”
Lowe said that when she read O’Connell’s description of the prom out loud to her staff in Belfast, it was an emotional experience.
“They got the chills,” she said. “It’s touched a lot of people in the way we hoped it would, just to demonstrate the importance of paying it forward.”