By Stefanie Jackson – Despite signs of the COVID-19 pandemic slowing down and state and federal agencies gradually easing health restrictions, local school districts canceled senior proms in 2021 for the second year in a row.
But persistent mothers in both Accomack and Northampton counties – including Exmore business owner Spring Custis – have said “no” to continue denying their children the milestone experiences the moms believe their kids deserve, banding together to organize proms at local high schools.
During a May 15 interview with the Eastern Shore Post, Custis said she understood why Northampton High School’s 2020 prom was canceled “smack dab in the middle” of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The younger of her two sons, Landon Custis, was a senior last year and missed the prom.
He also couldn’t graduate alongside his classmates. Instead, he participated in a drive-up graduation in which he arrived alone except for a few close family members, walked across an outdoor platform to receive his diploma, paused for a photo, and left to allow the next graduate to pass through.
The whole situation was “heartbreaking,” Spring Custis said.
Her only daughter, Savannah Custis, who did not get the opportunity to attend prom last year as a junior, would have missed out on her last chance to experience the milestone event this year as a senior.
Northampton High School’s 2021 prom was canceled “prematurely” and the students were treated unfairly, Spring Custis asserted. She took it upon herself to organize a prom for her daughter and all the other students who were going to miss out.
Organizing a prom without the financial support or endorsement of Northampton County Public Schools proved to be a hefty undertaking.
The first week of planning was especially “nerve-wracking” for Custis because only one other parent was helping her, but eventually a coalition of “five strong moms” was formed to get the job done, she said.
Custis began the effort around April 15 when she created the Facebook group Junior & Senior Prom (By the Parents) and a GoFundMe account of the same name, which had raised $3,555 of its $4,500 goal as of May 18. She also opened a bank account for prom donations and expenses.
She contacted a friend at Northampton County Parks and Recreation and scheduled a visit to Indiantown Park, in Eastville, to “look at the possibilities” of that location as a prom venue.
Custis wanted to hold the prom outdoors to maximize attendance. When she began planning, an executive order of Gov. Ralph Northam limited attendance at outdoor gatherings to 100 people, which would have accommodated Northampton’s senior class.
Soon after, the attendance cap on outdoor events was increased to 250 people, meaning the juniors could be accommodated as well.
That’s when things “started to fall into place,” Custis said.
There has been an “outpouring of support” from the local community and businesses as the mothers on the prom committee worked to pull together the event. They have received donations of money, food and drinks, gifts for attending students, and discounts at local vendors for prom-related supplies and services.
Aside from the GoFundMe page, money has been collected through fundraising events. An online silent auction sold donated products and services from local businesses, including gift cards, two-night resort stays, fresh seafood, cakes, home decor, and art. A bake sale of goods donated by friends and family in the community raised nearly $1,200 in one weekend.
Custis noted that the prom isn’t just a fun night for the kids – supporting it benefits the community because all the money raised goes directly to local businesses to put the event together. Students attending the prom also will spend money locally to purchase dresses or other formal wear, get their hair and nails done, get spray tans, buy corsages and boutonnieres, and go out to dinner, she pointed out.
The prom is a “win-win” for the community that gets an economic boost and the kids who get to enjoy a “magical night,” Custis said.
She has worked to “cover all the bases” to make the prom safe and successful.
Event insurance was purchased and an attorney was hired to draw up waivers that students must sign when they purchase tickets. Two sheriff’s deputies were hired to assist with parking and to monitor the event, and a restroom trailer will be on-site.
The biggest challenge of the entire project is making sure students are aware that the prom is happening, since the event is not endorsed by the school district and teachers are unable to help get the word out, Custis said.
Matters were further complicated when the school district announced that the prom had been canceled and some students mistakenly believed it was the parent-planned prom that had been canceled.
But after conversations with Superintendent Eddie Lawrence and Northampton High School Principal Mike Myers, the latter agreed to announce the prom over the loudspeaker on school days leading up to the event, Custis said.
The theme of the prom is an “enchanted forest” decorated with lights and flowers and it will be held under the stars and under the tent Friday, June 4, from 7 to 11 p.m., Indiantown Park, Eastville.
There will be refreshments, music played by a DJ, dancing, photography, and prizes. Drawings will be held every 15 minutes for prizes including two TVs, gift cards, and T-shirts.
Tickets cost $25 per student or $40 per couple and can be picked up at Custis’ shop at 3286 Main Street in Exmore.
She extended the deadline for students to purchase tickets for “the last hurrah before graduation.”
Custis said, “Everyone should attend, because it’s going to be amazing.”
Arcadia and Nandua Proms
Parents are also planning proms for Arcadia and Nandua high schools.
Both proms will be held off campus and have not been endorsed by Accomack County Public Schools.
Nandua High School’s prom will be held Saturday, June 5, from 7 p.m. to midnight, at the Central Accomack Little League field in Onancock. A grand march will be held at 6:30 p.m.
Arcadia High School’s prom will be held Saturday, June 12, from 7 to 10 p.m., at the Moose Lodge in Exmore.
Fundraising for all three parent-planned proms continues:
A GoFundMe page for the Northampton High School prom is located at https://gofund.me/3cf08279
A GoFundMe page for the Nandua High School prom is located at https://gofund.me/db97f516
A car wash to raise money for the Arcadia High School prom will be held Saturday, May 22, from 10 a.m. to noon, at Ocean Deli in Wallops Island.