It’s not very often that a person over the age of 70 gets invited to the prom, but invited I was on June 19 — and I was determined to go.
For this was no ordinary prom.
In addition to the usual dreamy splendor that goes along with prom night — the pretty dresses, the sharp-looking guys, the cool music of a non-stop disc jockey — this prom also featured things one normally doesn’t see at such an event: wheel chairs and prosthetic legs.
There were also anxious chaperones overseeing their fragile charges: 13- to 19-year-olds with various forms of cancer who might not live to enjoy a “real” prom of their own.
The event — titled “Once Upon a Time … ” — was held in the lovely art deco grand ballroom of the Regency Center on Sutter Street in San Francisco.
It was the brainchild and creation of one young man, Fred Scarf, a Sherman Oaks resident who was one of the winners of the Diller Teen 2008 Tikkun Olam Awards.
If you believe that thoughts of sickness and, in some cases, even death would cast a depressing pall over such an event, you are wrong!
The affair was afloat with all the zest, joy and noise that one would imagine from about 50 teens eating dinner and then dancing, bouncing, gyrating and stomping the night away.
I was so caught up in the mood of the evening that I even joined the rollicking group for the “last dance” at 10:30 p.m. — and I haven’t hooted it up since the jitterbugging days of my own prom in the 1950s. No “Goodnight Sweetheart” for these kids.
The expenses for the prom were budgeted out of the $36,000 that Fred received as a Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award winner 10 months ago. The award goes to five California teens who engage in community service and are exceptional role models in their communities and beyond.
Fred was selected, in part, because he founded the Shiri Foundation, named for his close high school friend, Shiri Gumbiner, who died of osteosarcoma (a rare form of cancer) at age 16. Read more about it at www.shiri.org.
Originally, Fred had planned to raise money for research, but then he realized that funds to find a cure for osteosarcoma would have to be huge. At that point, he decided that funding the very thing that Shiri was unable to do — attend her prom (she and Fred were going to attend together) — might be a more effective way to perpetuate her memory, as well as to bring hope and happiness to others afflicted with cancer.
He staged the first two events in Southern California in 2007 and 2008, and both were amazing successes. This year, since he spent his freshman year at U.C. Berkeley, he thought he would have the prom in San Francisco.
What an undertaking!
He didn’t have relationships with the various hospitals and treatment centers in the Bay Area as he did in Los Angeles, nor was he acquainted with how to contact social workers for young cancer patients (to see if they were healthy enough to attend a prom and would benefit from such an event).
And then there were other tasks: locating an appropriate space, finding a caterer, hiring a disc jockey — and even getting beauticians to arrange appointments for some of the girls who wanted their hair and nails done.
It wasn’t simply vanity, either: Some of the attendees had lost all their hair due to chemotherapy treatments and now that their hair had grown back, they wanted to look glamorous.
One girl who had been bald last year decided to color her hair pink to match the prom dress she was wearing. She flew up from L.A. to share her colorful self with newfound friends. Moreover, she was declared “cancer free” this year, so both she and her mom were ecstatic. We hit the dance floor as a threesome in a victory dance over cancer.
Fred did have some help from the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which shared information with him. He also had the help of his parents, Robert and Catherine Scarf, and his twin sister, Alexandra, a freshman at U.C. Santa Cruz. All were in attendance at the prom, having done the “grunt” work of stuffing and tying gift bags for attendees to take home. Attendees also took home caricatures of themselves drawn that evening by a professional artist.
To say “a good time was had by all” would be an understatement.
Like Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady,” I felt I could have danced all night. Instead, in addition to acting as a fill-in photographer, I stood in amazement at what this young man had accomplished.
Thanks to the Diller generosity, and to Fred’s creativity and hard work, the night of Friday, June 19 was not only a “Shabbat happening” but truly a “Once Upon a Time” story.
Barbara Rosenberg chairs the selection committee of the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards program. She has been a community leader and philanthropist for more than 40 years.