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Donated Clothes Help Bronx Boys Look Sharp for Work or Prom

By Patrick Wall | February 7, 2013 6:46am

PORT MORRIS — John Likanje Jr. had just embarked on his high school career at historic Fordham Prep last fall when he realized he had a problem — he needed ties to match the khakis and blazers he was suddenly expected to wear.

Meanwhile, down in Harlem, Doni Johnson, 34, had a bag of unused ties shoved deep in his closet — the remnants of his own stint in Catholic high school years before.

The missing link, it turned out, was Evelyn Alvarez, who heard about John’s dilemma through a colleague and instantly thought of her friend, Johnson, and his bag of ties.

When she explained the situation to Johnson, he happily donated his ties to John.

“Literally, these were things I deemed useless,” Johnson said. “But to somebody else, they were precious.”

That exchange proved to be the first of several between young men in need of dress clothes and adults with clothes to spare that Alvarez facilitated last year.

Now, she is hoping to form a nonprofit business, called Prom King, which would allow teen boys to submit online clothes requests — a dress shirt for an after-school job, a tie for graduation or even a tuxedo for prom — that donors could fill with new or used items and the company would deliver for free.

For Alvarez, a mother who lives with her young son in Port Morris, Prom King is meant to help boys of modest means compete for jobs, scholarships or even dance dates against boys with better-stocked closets.

“There’s an assumption that only certain people can strive for greatness,” said Alvarez, 37. “I don’t subscribe to that.”

The first stirrings of the Prom King idea came to Alvarez, who has worked for various youth-focused nonprofits, when she accompanied some high school girls last spring to a dress-giveaway in Manhattan. No one there, however, could think of a similar service for boys, she recalled.

A while later, she had to buy a $70 suit for her 7-year-old son to wear to a wedding, then probably bury in his closet. She knew that, for many working-class parents, such an expense is extravagant.

Finally, another colleague mentioned a young man who had just landed a catering job, but didn’t own the required dress shirt and slacks. Alvarez put out a call to her social network and, within minutes, people emailed to offer free clothes.

She realized then that there must be many other young men whose families struggled to provide them nice clothes, and many other older men with spare garments they would gladly give up.

“Philanthropy starts small,” Alvarez said. “Everybody should feel like they have something to offer.”

Since that initial tie exchange last fall, Alvarez has organized nearly two dozen other donations where she picked up the clothes from donors, had them dry-cleaned, then delivered the outfits to teens in a fancy bag with a handwritten note.

Plastic tubs filled with extra donated dress clothes — Ralph Lauren khakis, Structure button-ups, Alfani ties — sit stacked against her living room wall.

She has also enlisted three pro-bono programmers to design a website — still in development — that will match donors and recipients online.

Eventually, once the company secures official nonprofit status, she wants to raise funds for storage space, delivery vans and an office, where teens could come to be fitted, styled and photographed in their handsome new outfits.

Her goal now is to help outfit 25 young men for this year's prom.

“Top-notch treatment shouldn’t be reserved exclusively for people who have the money to pay for it,” Alvarez said.

Already, the clothes she has distributed have lifted a burden from some cash-strapped parents and increased the swag of their teenage sons.

Marie-France Likanje, John’s older sister, said that even with scholarships her family pays thousands of dollars for John to attend private school, which leaves few leftover funds for clothes. Even the small bag of donated ties eased the pressure on the family budget and made a big difference in John’s attitude and appearance, she said.

“Whenever I see him wearing his uniform," Likanje, 28, said, "I think he looks like a more regal young man.”

As for John, he just likes being able to choose from a stash of ties that match his dress shirts — particularly a sharp red one that pairs well with light-colored button-ups.

“When I go to school,” John, 14, said, “everyone says I look like President Obama.”

To donate clothes or other resources, email promkingnyc@gmail.com.