SPRING, Texas — It was a difficult thing for a teenager to confess.
The Houston Chronicle reports it’s about admitting you want something that your mother can’t afford. Admitting that homecoming still mattered after your family has lost everything to Hurricane Harvey. Admitting that you still wanted to be a kid when you were trying to be strong for your family.
So Janiyah Tells kept quiet. The 16-year-old didn’t say anything to her mother, who was already fretting about finding a new place to live, already frazzled from shuttling six children split between different temporary homes.
Still, her mother knew.
Rosenda Cuevas, whose own mother died when she was 17, always regretted not participating in high school dances and other teenage traditions. She didn’t want her daughter, a junior at Davis High School, to miss out.
But money is tight. The family’s Greenspoint apartment was gutted by flood waters, their belongings destroyed.
Then Cuevas heard about Ashley Reel — an Oak Ridge High School freshman who had started a campaign to collect homecoming dresses for girls impacted by Harvey. The dresses looked pretty online. Full of glitter and sequins and sparkle.
Just like she imagined for Janiyah.
So Cuevas emailed Reel, not quite knowing what to expect.
Ashley knows her family is luckier than many.
During Harvey, rising water swarmed through a nearby nature center, knocking down fences and leaving buildings in shambles. About 50 homes in the affluent subdivision in Spring were flooded.
But water never reached the Reels’ front door, which is adorned by a brightly colored “Welcome” wreath.
After the storm, Ashley and her family prepared sandwiches and meals for the displaced and the volunteers mucking out houses and ripping out drywall.
Not surprising for a family with a record of community service. Ashley’s 10-year-old brother created a nonprofit that distributes food to the homeless and has adopted 100 families to feed for Thanksgiving. Her older brother is an Eagle Scout who hand made 300 blankets for the Star of Hope shelter.
As the flood waters receded and the scope of Harvey’s destruction was revealed, Ashley kept thinking of kids her own age — classmates who lost homes to Harvey, the students at Kingwood High School whose building was ravaged, the teenagers all around Houston whose lives have been disrupted by disaster.
She wanted to give them something special, to restore a small patch of normalcy in a world suddenly turned upside down.
Her mind turned to homecoming, an autumn rite in high school — and the last thing on the minds of parents struggling to fix houses, searching for places to live, worrying about money.
Ashley put out a call on Facebook and on the local Nextdoor forum, asking for donations of homecoming dresses.
Her original goal was to collect 50.
She met that on the first day.
By Sunday, she had more than 2,000 — collected from all over Houston, more than 12 other states and Germany.
They took over her family’s living room. Dresses in every shade of the rainbow — peach and purple, cobalt blue and copper brown, lilac and lemon. Slinky and poofy, short and gown-length, sizes 0 to 26. Draped on hangers, piled on the kitchen table, lined on racks that formed a labyrinth of chiffon and taffeta. Some with designer labels and price tags still attached.
Many of the donations came with notes that made both Ashley and her mother, Tammy Reel, cry.
“This is a wonderful journey you have started,” read one in a package shipped from New York. “I wish God’s speed in the recovery from all the destruction Houston has suffered.”
Ashley’s original mission of providing dresses for girls in Humble Independent School District quickly expanded to include any girl in need of a gown, whether because of Harvey, financial hardship or family distress.
Yet, something — a tradition as sacred in Texas high schools as football — was still missing.
Inside the parish hall of Holy Comforter Episcopal Church on Saturday, a pop-up assembly line was in full production mode.
Ashley stood at the head of one table, snipping 1-foot lengths of white ribbon from spools threaded through a broom handle. At another station, 14-year-old Shyanne Prothro and her aunt shaped loops and points from 4-inch pieces, while Oak Ridge senior Deanna Blunt curled long gold strips with the zip of a scissor.
In the corner, retired florist Lynette Christenson expertly wielded a pink glue gun, attaching the bits and pieces to a silver disc.
“Here’s the first finished one,” Christenson said, holding up her creation.
A white silk flower centered on an embellished circle and adorned by streamers in white and blue. A golden trinket, with the saying “The Tassel is Worth the Hassle,” dangled from the core.
This was the missing part of Ashley’s dress drive: a homecoming mum.
The tradition, which began in the post-war era as corsages given by boys to their homecoming date, has grown into extravagant displays of flowers, cowbells, stuffed animals, flashing lights and jingling charms that students wear to school the day of the homecoming football game.
It is a cherished part of homecoming week for Texas high school students — and an increasingly expensive one. Some elaborate mums can cost $500 or more.
Ashley worried that teenagers hurt by Harvey would not be able to afford such an expense this year.
So she and her mother gathered volunteers to make 1,127 mums for seniors at Kingwood High School and Summer Creek High School, which have been forced to share a building this year. They are also making more for Oak Ridge students flooded out of homes.
“These types of things, these long-standing traditions, are so important,” noted Tammy Reel. “Whether it’s sharing a beer for adults or a silly dance for kids, they are an indication that life will return to normal.”
It hadn’t taken long for Ashley to respond to Cuevas’ email.
By Sunday, Janiyah and her mom, accompanied by two family friends, were at the Reels’ home and Janiyah was ensconced in the first floor bathroom, trying on dresses.
A sheer purple number was quickly rejected. As was a white form-fitting style.
No to the cream-colored dress with the long train. No to the one in burgundy.
A wrinkled nose to this one. A quick head shake to another.
“Do you want to try this one?” asked Laura Clemens, a neighbor who volunteered to help sort dresses. “That one is very cute.”
Outside the bathroom, the assembled cluster of women held their breath, waiting for Janiyah to emerge with a smile. Waiting for that moment when a dress is just right and a chorus of “oohs’ cascade around the room.
Every few minutes, the door would open and Janiyah would peek out, hand extended to exchange one dress for another.
Cuevas, who has taken time off from work to remake her life after Harvey, shifted from side to side, eager to catch sight of her daughter.
Finally, Clemens appeared with a gold sleeveless dress with a beaded bodice and a ruffled skirt.
“Ooh, pretty,” Ashley cooed, as she examined the offering.
The dress was slipped into the bathroom.
One minute passed. Then another.
Janiyah emerged, a shy smile on her face.
The fit was perfect. The golden fabric shimmered against her copper skin.
“I like that one! I like that one!” her mother shouted. “I’m about to cry.”
A chorus of “oohs” cascaded around the room.
Janiyah studied herself in a full-length mirror and said softly: “I like this one.”
“You look like a little princess,” Cuevas said. “I’m trying not to cry my lashes out.”
A pair of strappy gold sandals and a matching bracelet completed the look.
“She was scared to come,” Cuevas told Ashley, who can’t go to her own homecoming because of a color guard competition. “You are doing a wonderful thing for people.”
As they headed out the door, dress in hand, Cuevas spotted something hanging in the kitchen.
What is that? asked the Indiana native, who moved to Texas three years ago.
“It’s a homecoming mum,” replied Tammy Reel, as Cuevas studied the 4-foot-long red, white and blue floral design accented with a blue feathered boa. “We can make one for you.”
Cuevas wondered: “What do they do with it?”
“This is a Texas thing,” explained one of Cuevas’ friends.
Ashley and Janiyah just grinned at each other.
Harvey had taken away so much, but some things are stronger than a storm.
Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com
This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the Houston Chronicle