A young group of friends was standing in the parking lot of the Mayowood Stone Barn in southwest Rochester, dressed to the nines on a Saturday night. They were taking a few photos and talking a few logistics.
Before long, the friends started making their way to the historic barn where other small groups of teenagers also were headed. They were off to prom. And they were excited.
One of them had graduated the year before but returned from college when a friend purchased a second ticket. Since she had missed her own prom last year because of COVID-19, the chance was too good to refuse.
“It was something I really wanted,” Grace Anglin said about attending prom. “I’m excited to still be able to experience it, even though it’s a year late.”
Saturday’s prom was privately organized. In a year full of uncertainties because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a Mayo High School family decided to make sure their daughter got the prom she had always wanted.
“I was bound and determined that my daughter got a prom,” Stephanie Lillis said. “This has been on my mind since last year, honestly.”
Rochester Public Schools announced it would host a prom substitute this year, basically consisting of “a modified grand march and picture opportunity,” according to a notice the district sent out in early April. The Lillis family decided to branch out on their own when they realized the district would not be able to host a dance.
So the family went to work. They reserved the venue. They coordinated the catering. They hired a DJ. In just a few weeks, they hustled to bring it all together.
"We were very lucky that we were able to put this together in a short amount of time," Greg Lillis said. "It truly has been a second full-time job to pull this off, but it's been totally worth it."
Before long, word started to spread. The Lillises sold 130 of their planned 150 tickets within the first 72 hours. Because of COVID-related restrictions at the time, they would only be able to admit less than half of the high school's senior class.
Regardless, the concept seems to have caught on. Stephanie Lillis said there are now plans underway for similar proms at Century and John Marshall high schools as well.
Although they couldn’t have coordinated the beautiful weather for the day of the event, they were lucky enough to claim that as well.
The entrance to the lower level of the barn was decorated with an archway of green and gold balloons. Students on the upper floor of the barn called out to friends outside through the large haymow above the main entrance. Off in the yard, one student swung back and forth in a swing hanging from a large tree, with essentially nothing in view except for the historic barn, a field, and the trees beyond that.
“I think this is ten times nicer than it normally would be,” said student Isabelle Dostals.
For students who chose to remain in distance learning, the prom was a chance to see their classmates in person again. That was the case for Dostals and her friend Paige Winter.
“It’s my first big event after being fully vaccinated, so it’s super weird," Winter said. "But, it’s great to get back to some sort of normalcy."
For Brooke Lillis, prom was something she'd thinking about for a long time. She said she was grateful that her parents took it upon themselves to organize the event. Last year, she had already purchased a dress for her junior prom before she realized it was going to be canceled because of the pandemic.
“Prom’s something that I've been looking forward to since I was not even a freshman in high school,” Brooke Lillis said. “It’s something that every kid hears about and every kid wants to go to.”
As the start of the night inched closer, students walked up to the entrance, ready to hand their tickets to Greg Lillis. Couples and groups milled about beforehand on the yard, wearing colorful dresses and ties.
For some, being able to have an alternative prom was almost better than it would have been in a normal year -- not just because of the scenic location, but because of everything they had been through to get there.
“It almost feels better because of us doing it in a different location,” the student Cason Larson said. “It almost makes it more special because of the whole COVID (pandemic).”