BEMIDJI -- When she bought her junior prom dress earlier this year, Bemidji High School student Hailey Nelson never imagined her prom would be happening online.

But she is making the best of it.

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on many high school rituals and rites of passage -- and prom was no exception.

“It was really disappointing,” Nelson said of the initial cancellation. “It was honestly devastating for me and a lot of my friends.”

Hailey, and her mother Amy Nelson, owner of Netzer’s Floral, decided to do something for students in the wake of cancellations, and are leading the charge in planning a "non-prom" event, which will be happening this Friday, May 15.

Many local businesses are contributing goods and services to help local students, especially the class of 2020, to still have a memorable experience despite restrictions. Big Muddy Music, Minnesota Nice Cafe, Chocolates Plus, Marketplace Foods, Leigh Schrage, Lainie Hiller, MyBemidji and Great River Design, First City Dance Studio, Drahos, Kieson and Christopher Law Office, and Paul Bunyan Telephone all have contributed to the planning and execution of this event.

Amy said the inspiration to plan an alternative prom came after she saw post after post on Facebook from community members trying to figure out a way to still honor the high school graduating class. As a florist, she is connected with other florists across Minnesota who have also been bouncing around ideas for things they could do.

“There’s just so many great community members who have posted on Facebook over the last month saying, ‘We really need to plan something for these kids,’” she explained. “It just kind of morphed into this, I guess.”

Student response

Hailey is in charge of promoting the event on social media and while she has had a fairly positive response, some students remain close-minded toward the idea of a virtual prom, she explained.

“I’m hoping that I can try to get some people more open-minded about it and just be like, ‘You know what, if I try to make it fun then it will be fun,” she added.

She wanted to help plan this event for the class of 2020’s sake, because while she is a junior and will hopefully be able to attend a more traditional prom next year, many of her closest friends are seniors.

“I’m really excited to be able to put something on for them, where people can have something to look back on and remember 20 years from now when they look back at high school,” she said. “I want them to be able to remember their senior prom and although it’s not ideal, it’s still something that we can make fun.”

Formal wear is optional for the event, although many students who had already purchased their prom dresses or tuxedos may be eager to have a reason to wear them.

Sunny Werlein works on the bases for prom corsages at Netzer’s Floral on Tuesday in Bemidji. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
Sunny Werlein works on the bases for prom corsages at Netzer’s Floral on Tuesday in Bemidji. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

Prom night

Here’s how the “Non-Prom” will look: students will purchase a $35 ticket online via the Netzer’s Floral Facebook page. On May 15, students will receive their corsages or boutonnieres, a takeout meal from Minnesota Nice Cafe, chocolates, treats and more, via curbside pick-up.

The exact location and time for this will be communicated in the future. Then, students will have the opportunity to be photographed by local photographers -- from a distance.

A virtual zoom dance will be hosted after students return from pictures and picking up their gift bags. This will be led by Big Muddy Music, also known as BHS alum Gunnar Aas.

“We’ll kind of listen to it like it’s a radio almost, but you can still see other people through the screen,” Hailey said.

While Aas has never been a DJ for a virtual event before, he is looking forward to it.

“The students are welcome to dance along or sing along while at home, or just hang out and listen,” he said. “Whatever they want their experience to be, it’s really up to them.”

Students will be able to request songs via the chat feature on Zoom, he explained.

“I’m really looking forward to giving back to the Bemidji community,” he said. “And I think it’s going to be a really cool way to give back to the students this year especially.”

Who can attend

Students from Bemidji High School and surrounding schools, including Voyagers and TrekNorth, are welcome to attend. Tickets can be purchased via a link on the Netzer’s Floral Facebook page through Tuesday night. More information and a Zoom access link will be sent to students after purchase.