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Surprise donation saves prom at school still reeling from Sandy

Some communities, like the Rockaways in Queens, N.Y., are still picking up the pieces after Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012. At Channel View School for Research, which is still being run on a generator, the senior prom no longer seemed feasible: until Operation Prom stepped in. NBC's Katy Tur reports.

By Chiara Sottile, NBC News

QUEENS, N.Y. -- Desiree Coombs lifted the skirt of her full-length fuchsia gown and curtsied through the dark blue drapes of the impromptu dressing room. With a wide smile, she indulged the semicircle of supportive onlookers with a twirl and a swish in her dress.

"This is it. This feels great,” she said, looking over her shoulder into a full-length mirror.

As other attendees at the dress giveaway applauded and cheered, Coombs, an 18-year-old senior at Channel View School for Research in the Rockaways, Queens, smiled shyly, running her hands over the dress's waterfall of ruffles. 

In October 2012 Hurricane Sandy flooded the school, knocked out its heat and power, tore up its field, and forced it to close down for more than two months. Some classrooms are still closed, a sinkhole menaces the parking lot, and the school must rely on generator power.

After Hurricane Sandy, students at Channel View School for Research thought there wouldn't be a prom. That's where Operation Prom came in.

But Noel D'Allacco wouldn't let the hurricane steal prom away. Her non-profit, Operation Prom, collects and cleans donated prom dresses and tuxedos, providing them to children who cannot afford them in five states nationwide.

"This is truly a blessing and I'm really thankful for everyone who's been a part of it, truly," said Coombs, who found her dream prom gown at an Operation Prom dress giveaway in Queens, New York.

Finding new focus 

D'Allacco founded Operation Prom nine years ago when she was in college after seeing formal gowns waste away, stashed in the back of closets after one wear.

Operation Prom has helped thousands of students attend their prom at little cost. After Hurricane Sandy, D'Allacco decided she wanted to do even more for the storm-ravaged high school in Queens. 

For the first time, her nonprofit paid for a full prom: from gowns, to tuxedos, to the event itself, at a cost of more than $11,000. 

"Ever since Hurricane Sandy, people have been donating their time and helping people who lost their homes. And we're a prom organization; we can't build houses, unfortunately, but we can give a prom to these students who might not have been able to afford going," said D'Allacco. 

Folorunso ‘Foley’ Fatukasi is one of many Channel View seniors whose home was reduced to studs in the storm. The doors and windows have been clawed away, and the home's guts -- beams and panels -- jut at odd angles, exposed.

"We pretty much lost a lot, almost everything," said Fatukasi, gesturing to what remains of the front porch. "You really don't know what you have until you lose it."

The Fatukasi family said they are still negotiating with their bank to get the funds needed to rebuild their family home.

"For Operation Prom to come and say, 'Alright, guys, girls, we're going to pay for your prom.' That was great. And at least I get to go to prom and my parents can still handle their priorities in terms of our house," said Fatukasi.

With her students and faculty still struggling after Hurricane Sandy, Principal Pat Tubridy is grateful for Operation Prom and explains how special and important prom is to her students.

'Let's live it up'

On a rainy day at a Men's Warehouse in Brooklyn, Fatukasi towered over a table of ties in every hue, examining his options.

"I'm going to take advantage of it. I'm going to look at every color. I'm going to look at every shoe," he said.  

Thanks to the partnership between Operation Prom and the Men's Warehouse, Fatukasi and his classmates were meticulously measured, pored over binders of color swatches and style choices, and appreciated the luster of the patent leather dress shoes on display.

"I found a size 15 shoe without struggling!" beamed Fatukasi, a football player with an impressive stature.

Asked if he was looking forward to celebrating on prom night, Fatukasi answered, "You know the expression 'YOLO,' right? It's just that. It's 'YOLO.' You only live once. Let's live it up."

On the night of the prom, as the sun set, the senior class of Channel View School for Research walked up the marble stairs of Vetro's Restaurant in Howard Beach, New York. Professional photographers, a multi-course white-tablecloth dinner, a DJ, decorations and all the trappings of high school's glitziest night awaited them.

Desiree Coombs glided across the dance floor in her floor-length fuchsia gown and sparkling earrings, with her closest friends.

"I can't believe it's finally here!" she exclaimed. "I'm just so happy Operation Prom did so many good things for us." 

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Desiree Combs and her date, Nicholas Hamilton, attend their high school prom in Queens, N.Y.

And that night, instead of worrying about bank loans or home repairs, Fatukasi's biggest obstacle was his date's corsage.

"Yo, what hand do I put it on?" he asked a friend as his date arrived in her matching coral ensemble. "Oh, right hand? Oh OK, cool."