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Melanie Hoopes
Left to right, top row: Ashley Elliott, Valerie Kinnison, Madison French, Jenna Thornburg, Raquel Hoopes, Cassidy Hrabik; bottom row: David Perez, Brandon Neilson, Connor Lee, Ty Whitaker, Colin O'Brien and Daniel Wood pose with their dates before attending the Mormon Prom in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. The teens live in Mission Viejo, Foothill Ranch, Rancho Santa Margartia, Coto de Caza, Foothill Ranch and Lake Forest.

Youths from more than 25 wards of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., area gathered March 16 at Santa Margarita Bell Tower for the annual Mormon Prom.

Young men and women ages 16 to 18 from Laguna Niguel, Rancho Santa Margarita, Mission Viejo, San Clemente and Lake Forest areas attended, along with their dates and friends.

Dozens of green balloons decorated the hall, celebrating the Emerald Ball theme. That many wards are included both to make it a more fun experience for the youth and to lessen the workload on the adults, said Liz Forrest, Young Women president in the Santa Margarita California Stake.

“We want to provide them with a positive experience without the expense of school proms,” Forrest said. “We don’t allow sexualized dancing and insist on modest dress. Not only are these the standards of our church, but the kids feel less intimidated in this kind of environment.”

Megan Taylor of Trabuco Canyon was particularly excited because the Emerald Ball will be not just her first prom, but her first date. Megan, a cheerleader at Mission Viejo High School, turned 16 last month and was excited to have a date for the prom.

“I didn’t really ask my parents to go on a date before now,” Megan said. “No dating before 16 has just always been the rule in our family.”

Once they turn 16, however, Mormon youths are encouraged to start dating.

“We want them to learn appropriate social skills,” explains Sterling Brennan, Santa Margarita California Stake president. “We want the young men to get used to the three P’s — plan, pay and pair off — to consider their date’s preferences and know how to ask for a date rather than just text. We especially encourage couples to socialize in groups.”

“About 80 percent of the youth are here with dates,” estimated Leslie Mortensen, Young Women president in the Mission Viejo California Stake. “We feel this event is successful in promoting the lost art of dating, of planning for another’s enjoyment and getting to know different people.”

The prom cost $15 per couple. “Paying is part of training for dating,” Mortensen said.

Most of the youths attending dined in groups in parents’ homes. Tammy Bailey of Mission Viejo spearheads a dinner party each year, based on the prom’s theme. This year, she turned her home into the Emerald City, complete with yellow brick road, with dinner served by the Wizard of Oz cast. Youths chipped in $10 per couple to help pay for food.

“Yes, it’s a lot of work, but really fun,” Bailey said. “No time spent on the youth is ever wasted.”

Melanie Hoopes live with her husband and children in Trabuco Canyon and is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.