Chicago teen-agers treat flooded students to a prom


May 04, 1994|By Patricia Tennison | Patricia Tennison,Chicago Tribune

KINDERHOOK,ILL — KINDERHOOK, Ill. -- Traditions run deep in a small town, and Saturday's high school prom was bound to happen no matter what the Mississippi River had done.

It was last summer when the Mississippi, fueled by weeks of heavy rain, spilled through the countryside and flooded the Illinois towns of Kinderhook, Hull and New Canton, across the river from Hannibal, Mo.

Nearly a third of the students in the three towns' single school district, nine miles from the river, were forced from their homes.

The West Pine Community High School building was spared the sewage-filled green waters that left the elementary school, along with the corn and soybean crops, neck-deep in muck.

But although the school buildings and town have been cleared of debris, the cleanup wiped out funds for the annual junior-senior prom.

Fearing that the spring dance would never come off, West Pine High School Principal Tom Leahy asked for help by sending letters to other school districts.

In waltzed a group of high school students from Naperville, a suburb of Chicago.

The group of students, members of a drug-free community-based organization called REACH (Responsible Educated Adolescents Can Help), began collections to help out the West Pine school, 300 miles away on the central-western edge of Illinois.

"It really renewed our faith and took away some of the adversarial feelings that can politically separate downstate from upstate," Mr. Leahy said.

The Naperville students collected 25 prom dresses. They also raised $1,000 to offer flood victims $50 each to buy their own dresses or rent tuxedos.

Meanwhile, Joyce Lorentz of Naperville, an adult leader of REACH, contacted the West Pine school's administration. The Jaycees of Naperville were recruited to provide the shrimp and steak dinner.

On Saturday morning, 20 of the Naperville students and a dozen Jaycees boarded a bus for Kinderhook, arriving at the gym while the prom students were at home getting dressed.

The Naperville students scrubbed baking potatoes and filled little bowls with salad dressing. Then the visitors quickly changed in the high school locker rooms into black trousers and red cummerbunds, ready to serve dinner to the students.

All 21 seniors and all 28 juniors showed up. Two senior boys who didn't have dates were matched with two Naperville girls to make the traditional processional entrance.

Mr. Leahy's appeal for help also brought money from hurricane victims in Florida, from donors in Connecticut and from Illinois towns including Libertyville, Elmhurst and Plano.

"I remember getting the first $100," Mr. Leahy said. "And within a week, we had $6,000."

The 49 prom-goers arrived to find the West Pine gym transformed into a fairyland. Thousands of cardboard stars glimmered above an 18-foot-high cardboard castle.

During dinner the Naperville students hovered over the tables.

"It was kind of weird," homecoming queen Nancy Crim said of being waited on by high school students from another district. "But they're real nice."

Because she had already bought her long, red, sequined dress, Ms. Crim, 18, one of only nine girls in the senior class, gave her $50 to her date so he could rent his tuxedo.

Said Scott Waslow, 18, a Naperville senior, "After what these kids had to go through, it's great that they have this."

The West Pine parents usually raise about $70,000 annually for ++ extras such as class trips, the band, the yearbook and the prom.

When the flood problems are under control, the community and the school must once again be self-sufficient, Mr. Leahy said.

"You can only be on the receiving end for so long," Mr. Leahy said. "For the good of the kids, they need to take care of themselves."

Tenille Bushmeyer, 16, a junior at West Pine, looks forward to that day.

"At first, you cry every time you get something," she said. "My mother cried the first time she got food stamps, and she cried the first time she had to use them.

"But we're getting back on our feet."

Roger Simon is on vacation. His column will resume May 11.

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