S

HATASHA Walker

, this year's valedictorian of Camden High School, had planned to skip her school's senior prom.

Even though a girlfriend offered to pay for her $80 ticket, Walker opted not to go because of the expense associated with this once-in-a-lifetime rite of passage. Her classmate, Natasha Lindsay, decided not to go, either. She had a baby just last week and figured she'd spend tomorrow night with her newborn son. It was the adult thing to do. But deep down inside, Lindsay really wanted to be with her class for one last hurrah before graduation.

"I worked too hard to get this far, so why not?" said Lindsay, who described herself as a former trouble-maker. "I changed into a mature person as I went into my junior year. I just got real. A lot of my friends got hurt. Life's too short."

It is, which is why it's such a wonderful thing that these young ladies are going to get to go to their senior prom after all.

Thanks to the generosity of actress Sharon Stone and local businesswoman Mary Dougherty, owner of the three Nicole Miller boutiques in Philadelphia, 14 seniors from Camden High will not only get to go to their prom tomorrow, but in a manner that they never dreamed possible. The cost of their tickets is being picked up by Planet Hope, the foundation Stone runs with her sister Kelly. And Dougherty's stores donated the girls' dresses, shoes and accessories.

"I don't remember who I went to my prom with, but I remember my dress," Dougherty told me yesterday as we awaited the students' arrival at her shop at The Bellevue. "I fell in love with [a matching] necklace and it was $60. I couldn't afford it."

Well, the 13 lucky ladies who showed up yesterday could afford anything in the entire boutique because, thanks to Dougherty, it was all free. As the girls entered the store, you'd have expected a bit of a frenzy, but the students held back, appearing awed as sales associates escorted them toward dressing rooms with armloads of colorful gowns.

Beauty students from Rizzieri in Cherry Hill stood by, waiting to do the girls' makeup and share beauty tips.

Until recently, most of the girls had never even heard of Miller, who has an international reputation as a designer of special-occasion dresses. And here they were, about to be dressed up in one of her creations. A floor-length Miller gown is priced at about $500, and a sexy pair of sandals with rhinestone butterfly accent at the heel to match, about $375.

"How fabulous does she look in that?" one sales associate whispered as Patricia Puntier peered at herself in the mirror.

"I've got to practice, like, three days in these shoes," Puntier giggled as she tried to walk in a pair of 4-inch-high stilettos.

Then, another associate presented Puntier with a silver tray full of rhinestone earrings, necklaces and bracelets.

"Can I take, like, a second? I'm so overwhelmed," Puntier said.

Donna Drummonds, the school's community coordinator, stood back taking it all in. But she eventually sank onto a bench behind a three-way mirror in tears of joy and relief that all the girls had found something to wear.

"If you knew some of their stories, it would break your heart," she said. "There are circumstances in each of their lives that would have made it difficult for them. . . . One girl's a cancer survivor. One student, there's drug use in their family. Many of them come from single-parent homes.

"I selected the girls based on their grades and their attitudes and their personalities," Drummonds said. Instead of buying off the rack, many girls at Camden High have dresses specially made.

"They pay exorbitant prices. They pay $300 and up to have a dress made, maybe out of lining material that pulls apart on the dance floor," said Drummonds, who attends proms armed with a sewing kit.

"This is an opportunity. I hope they treasure it for the rest of their lives."

Judging from the look on 18-year-old Monique Milner's face after she selected a clingy, $425 blue gown with a train, I think they will. They all will. *