Brandon Wright never thought he would attend another high school prom, let alone host one — especially not at his car dealership, of all places.
But that’s exactly what happened May 15, after he offered up his business in Covington, Va., as a prom venue.
On May 15, about 80 elated junior and senior high school students showed up in glittery gowns and tuxedos at Wright Way Motors, primed for prom. With the help of parents and community members, Wright transformed his 5,000-square-foot showroom into a celebratory space with a DJ, a red carpet, flower arrangements and twinkly lights.
“We really wanted to make it special for them, considering the year they had,” Wright said.
The idea to use the dealership as a makeshift prom venue arose after Wright received a call from one of the high school parents in March, asking for donations to help organize the event. The school normally sponsors the prom but was unable to host it this year due to pandemic restrictions, Wright said. So, the community mobilized to make it happen.
“We didn’t want our kids to miss out,” said Lisa Crawford Akers, a local photographer whose son is a senior at the high school.
But as parents started raising money and scouting for covid-friendly, spacious venues, they quickly learned the options were scant — and costly.
“We couldn’t afford to pay for places where we had previously hosted prom,” said Akers, who volunteered to help plan the event. “There was no money set aside for this, so we were really relying on donations and people helping out of the kindness of their hearts.”
When Wright learned that the prom organizers were struggling to secure a space, he thought to himself, “why not try my dealership?”
First, he ensured that he had adequate liability insurance, and “once I knew we could get that done, I said, ‘Let’s go for it.’ It was a no-brainer for us.”
“I’m a sucker for kids. They’re our future. So, I wanted to make sure they’re taken care of and making memories,” added Wright, a father of four kids under 7 years old.
He introduced the idea to the parents who were planning the prom, and they were floored by his unexpected offer.
Had it not been for Wright, “I don’t think the prom would have happened,” said Sandy Phillips Fox, whose daughter is a senior at the high school
The students were thrilled, too.
Upon hearing the news, “I was ecstatic,” said Hannah Breeden, Fox’s 18-year-old daughter. She was especially grateful, as “we didn’t get to have a junior prom because of covid.”
“It really made the class feel special, and that we weren’t being overlooked,” she added.
As of May 15, gatherings in Virginia are permitted for up 100 people indoors and 250 outdoors, and given that the dealership is situated on a two-acre lot, “we had plenty of room,” Wright said.
The Covington community had one month to plan the event.
“We all had our designated duties,” said Donna Young, the parent of a senior student, who spearheaded the prom initiative.
Young, who is a party planner, took measurements of the dealership to ensure that it could safely fit all the students. She was responsible for reconfiguring the showroom.
She said all adults at the event were fully vaccinated, as well as most students, and those who were not were asked to wear a mask.
“We followed protocol very closely,” Young said.
While she put in countless hours planning the prom, what touched her most about the process, she said, was how gracious the local community was, both with their time and financial support.
Donations poured in from parents, teachers and local businesses, including a nearby pizzeria, which provided individually wrapped sandwiches for all the students to eat at the event. Others donated decorations, snacks and supplies needed to make the prom possible.
But it was Wright, Young said, who made the most critical contribution.
“He turned over his whole space to us. He moved all of his cars, and he swept and mopped the whole area before he turned over the keys,” she said.
Wright also closed his business the day before the event to allow parents to set up, and “we paid our people to take an extra day off,” he said.
After several hours of decorating, “you would have never known it was at a car dealership. We made it look like it was a beautiful resort,” Young said.
They set up a photo room where students could have their prom picture taken, as well food and beverage stations and an outdoor seating area. By the time they were finished, the space was transformed into a venue hall.
Before heading to the dealership for the main event last Saturday, senior students strolled together along Main Street for an annual tradition in Covington — which has a population of about 5,500 — called the “Grand March,” during which pairs parade in their prom outfits and take photos.
“It was just beautiful to see them all,” said Young, adding that the school was on a hybrid schedule this year, and many students were strictly remote. “After being cooped up and not being able to do senior things, they needed to enjoy themselves. They really needed this.”
The real fun began when students arrived at the car dealership, where they were guided to a four-person table, and invited to dance, eat, take photos, and participate in a raffle — for which Wright donated several prizes, including AirPods, an Apple Watch, and various gift cards.
“I wanted to give everybody some more excitement,” he said.
The chaperones, including Wright and his wife, Ashley, gave students some space, keeping a close eye on the event from the upstairs balcony.
“I hadn’t been to prom in 13 years. When you look down at these kids having fun, I remembered my own prom and what I would have missed,” Wright said. “These are things we took for granted. We didn’t have a pandemic or anything that could take that opportunity away. It’s not just a corny dance, it’s a memory.”
Plus, it was particularly nostalgic for him, since Wright graduated from Covington High School in 2007, and “my wife and I were high school sweethearts. Prom was big for us,” he said. “We smiled the whole time, just watching them.”
It was the students, though, who appreciated the experience the most.
“It’s been a difficult year, so it meant a lot to be together again,” said Sammy Akers, 18. “I’m so thankful that everyone helped make it happen.”