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A teen cotillion in Oakland focuses on a successful future for at-risk teens

on October 17, 2018

Most people who hear the word “cotillion” probably think of an extravagant coming-of-age ball to introduce upper-class girls into high society.

Oakland-based Lend A Hand Foundation’s Teen Cotillion, however, is for a totally different demographic: low-income, at-risk teens. And instead of learning what a salad fork is, or how to properly use their napkins during dinner, these coming-of-age kids prep for the ball with workshops on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) careers, communication, essay writing, public speaking, professional development—and, of course, dance lessons for the ultimate ball.

The program is a unique approach to helping teens facing tough challenges.

Lend A Hand was founded twenty years ago to provide local young people—especially those from low-income communities—with clothing, housing and special outings, like trips to restaurants. Earlier this year, foundation Vice President of Programs Judy Matthews proposed the idea of doing something new.

Lend A Hand founder Dee Johnson remembered the moment Matthews pitched the idea: “She came in and said, ‘I want to have a teen cotillion’ and I said, ‘A who?!’”

Matthews told Johnson that in 2016 her son took a series of workshops to prepare to be a debutante’s escort to a sorority ball. The workshops included titles like “Impeccable Manners,” “Attire Measurements,” “The Road to College,” “Debt Free College Experience”—and even waltz lessons. Matthews said her son came away from the experience with “new friends and information regarding what to expect in college.”

She and Johnson then began raising money to offer local youth the same experience—but at no cost.

That experience will kick off later this week when the foundation finishes handpicking its 20 cotillion participants—10 girls and 10 boys. The chosen teens will commit 16 weekends in late October through February to prepare for the ball and to learn from local experts about how to build a successful future.

Judge David Krashna, retired from the Alameda County Superior court and now a lecturer at UC Berkeley’s School of Law, will spend a Saturday teaching the teens about public speaking. Retired U.S. Air Force Major Beverly H. Davis will then teach them the finer points of etiquette.

Davis said it’s important to teach lessons that are normally reserved for privileged youth, because she believes it’s a big part of achieving success in the business world.

Lend a Hand’s Cotillion is free to participants, but it will come at a steep cost for the foundation, said Johnson.

That’s not surprising, given the cost of other Bay Area cotillions (and there are a few). Burlingame-based Junior Manners Company offers seventh to ninth-graders classes on manners, social skills, ethics, building relationships, and basic ballroom dancing for $690 a month. Orinda County Cotillion offers a series of 6 dance classes for $225 a class.

Even those seem affordable compared to the most expensive cotillion in the world: The International Debutant Ball held yearly at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, with a ticket price of $22,000. (Gowns can run an additional $20,000 to $40,000.)

Of course, none of these offer the life lessons that Lend A Hand’s cotillion will impart.

UC Berkeley professor Emily J. Ozer, who studies adolescent mental and physical health, wrote in an email that teens often benefit from programs that help them build relationships with peers and adults.

Linda Wilbrecht, an associate professor of psychology at UC Berkley, wrote in an email that “STEM, writing and public speaking skills are wonderful things to learn for people of all ages.”

On top of the etiquette, public speaking, and essay writing workshops, Matthews has planned a community outreach day to put the teens to work helping others in crisis by preparing emergency kits for children in dire circumstances due to abuse, eviction, fire, or other crises. Matthews said she hopes this will inspire Teen Cotillion participants to help their peers once they leave the program.

The program is set to launch October 20, with free lunch followed by Judge Krashna’s workshop.

The Cotillion Ball will take place at the Emeryville Best Western in March.

Matthews—still seeking donations for gowns, tuxedos, and food—said the event will give teens “who wouldn’t ordinarily have the opportunity to experience a cotillion, that opportunity.”



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