ON WEDNESDAY night, Nicole Reid and Siaoni Jackson, both 20, experienced a rite of passage they thought they'd given up when they dropped out of high school.

Earlier in the day, they got their hair done, their makeup just right, and then slipped into striking, matching champagne-colored dresses they had fretted over for weeks before ... the Big Night.

Prom night.

So what if they weren't graduating from the high school they once attended. So what if they had a lot more on their plates as single mothers than typical high school graduates. So what if they were pulling a straight-up Cinderella fairy tale on this weeknight, on borrowed time while relatives cared for their children.

Tonight was prom - and for a few blissful hours, they were going to savor every moment of it.

"I am ready to dance," Jackson declared, eyeing the empty dance floor at the Ethical Society.

Here's the thing about second chances: Wonderfully redemptive as they are, sometimes you miss out on milestones that come with doing things the first time around.

For instance, you drop out of high school but eventually get your GED, you might get a graduation ceremony, but chances are there's no prom.

That's how it was at the JEVS Human Services E3 program that helps 16- to 21-year-olds get their GEDs.

But this year, students decided a prom was in order, and the program set them up with free dresses and suits, for anyone who wanted them, free hair styling and makeup the day of the prom, and boutonnieres and corsages.

And why not? There should be a celebration of all these students have accomplished, all the obstacles they have overcome.

Consider some of the stats from the program: Almost 80 percent of E3 members have reading and math levels below ninth-grade level, 58 percent have been involved in the court system, 36 percent are pregnant or are already parents, and more than half of participants experience some level of homelessness at some point during their enrollment.

Reid, who lives in North Philly, and Jackson, who lives in West Philly, were both once homeless. Reid was living in a shelter with her children when she started the program. Jackson ended up in one when her house caught on fire one winter night last year.

When things got tough, they turned to each other, even if it meant middle-of-the-night pep talks.

"There were times I was on the phone with her at 3 in the morning, saying, 'Yo, stop crying. We gotta go to school tomorrow, you gotta get up in a couple of hours,' " Jackson said.

Reid told Jackson about the program. And ever since, they've leaned on one another, two young mothers who want more for themselves and their children.

"I had to do this for my kids," said Reid. "I couldn't keep going in the same circle I was going in. I don't want them to be like me. I want them to be better than me, to get a good education, stay on track and stay on focus. I want them to get further than me."

Both women are now at Community College of Philadelphia, with big dreams of careers in psychiatry and social work.

But Wednesday, those plans took a backseat to a rare night off. Many of the participants went together. At one table were Reid and Jackson, who adorably call themselves Peanut Butter and Jelly. At another table, there were friends Lance Dunn and Dayanara Laboy, who stuck out the program together and now were celebrating together.

What better way to celebrate than with the people you shared such a life-changing experience with?

Confession: I never went to prom. I never really got what all the fuss was about. But that may be because I went to three different high schools, and the one guy who threw me a pity ask was vetoed by my father.

But standing there, among the 60 or so students giddily complimenting each other on their pretty dresses and sharp suits, I could see the appeal - especially for students who worked so hard to get there.


215-854-5943 @NotesFromHel