Prom With a Purpose: Interview with Bethany Nolson
University student Bethany Nolson is the brains behind Prom With A Purpose (affectionately known as ‘PWAP’), an alternative year-end celebration for students who feel compelled to put their time and money towards more than a date, a dress, and a dance. Bethany’s passion, drive, and unstoppable will towards ending injustice is palpable in her inspiring interview. We’re so grateful she shared her story with us!
Tell us a bit about your background.
I live in Markham. I’m in my second year at York University, I’m studying children’s studies and human rights. We’re studying how our society views children and what that looks like if you’re working with children specifically. Human rights looks at human rights in all different contexts. I want to pursue a career in advocacy or international development of some sort.
How did you learn about IJM?
I don’t know where I first heard of it, it seems like an organization that I was just always aware of. When I was going through high school, I started to look into different options and learn a little more about some issues that I was interested in, or issues that I felt were on my heart and I needed to learn about.
IJM was definitely up there as I started to learn about human trafficking and what that looks like around the world. It happened by chance that we chose to fundraise for IJM Canada through Prom With A Purpose (PWAP). That’s when I started to learn a bit more and really dive into the information that IJM provides and learn a lot more about the issue. And that’s when I became amazed by the work that IJM does. Really important work on issues that are so prevalent around the world.
As we supported the organization, I’ve just tried to fill in as much as I can about the issues that we’re supporting and IJM’s work around the world.
What inspired you to start Prom With A Purpose?
PWAP actually started when I was in grade 12. At the time I was really feeling out of place in school, I was struggling with a lot of things that our society holds as so important, and just feeling very much out of place especially as we came into the prom season. I would be in conversations with friends, where they were always trying to one up each other on how much they had spent on their dress – or what they would be spending on their limos, and hair, and parties.
There’s just such a culture of consumerism that I did not feel comfortable with - it was really frustrating to me. I didn’t know whether this was justified or why I was really feeling that way. But I just knew that something was off, and I started to think about what that meant.
I debated whether it was something I should be frustrated with, and then I was given the opportunity to go on a short-term mission trip to Peru in my grade 12 year. And through that [experience], God really affirmed that those were valid feelings, and that He had given me a heart for issues of injustice. It was such a small glimpse of what the issues are in our world, but it caught my heart and reaffirmed who I was designed to be and what I was called to do.
So I came home and tried to figure out what that meant. Now understanding that what I was feeling was valid, what does that mean when you’re in high school and a grade 12 student? I remember the day I walked into my house, and my mom was standing at the counter.
She said, "I don’t have anything beyond a name, but I think we should host a ‘prom with a purpose’. That’s all I’ve got, you have to figure out the rest.”
And at that moment something just clicked. From there we went with it and it’s been a crazy ride.
That was the beginning of everything. We put together a youth planning team and an adult advisory board. We wanted to support an issue that affected people our age, so we threw around a lot of different ideas. We settled on human trafficking because it affects people our age, not just around the world but also in cities in Canada too - even in our schools and communities.
We chose IJM as our organization that works internationally, and have supported several local organizations that work in the GTA. We’ve tried to balance it and really raise awareness and funds for both the local and international side of the issue.
What was the initial prom like? Did you manage to get your more materialistic peers on board?
[Laughs]. It was great! I connected with a wide range of people from mine, and other schools, old friends, camp, church - people I knew would really understand [the cause], and have that same kind of emotional connection.
I found that so many people wanted to make a difference; they want to be able to help, they just don’t know how.
When we started to plan and sell tickets for our initial prom, there was some hesitation especially as we were at the end of Grade 12. Finding funds was difficult because we were in high school and university. But there was that context within our group and others that joined us. People understood that this was their chance to not only have a fun time, but also to support a really important cause.
So many people did come alongside us we were really excited about that - and since our first event that excitement has grown! We encourage people to really just pay for their ticket – not buying a new dress, not putting a lot of money into getting hair, and nails, and make-up done. We encourage people to use what they already have and simply put the money into the ticket.
How many proms have you hosted? Have you seen it grow year after year?
This past February we had our third PWAP in four years, which is crazy. Our first event was pretty small, we had about 45 people but it was a great time. And then as we came into our second year we tried to do things a little bit differently, to do it at a different time of the year, and it just didn’t come together. So we actually had our 2015 event fall through. It just didn’t happen.
In 2016 we tried again, trying to make things the most effective that we could and we had about 55 people come out. And then this year, just through some crazy chaos, we had 82 people come to our event. It’s still crazy in my mind – God said pray for 75, and it just kept going.
Selling tickets to teenagers is not an easy thing. As I always say when I’m speaking to a youth group or school group, our generation has a little bit of an issue with commitment. Especially in advance. We don’t like to make plans in advance. It’s always been quite a struggle to get tickets in. People love to come but we have to have our numbers in two weeks in advance. So getting people to commit two weeks, three weeks, a month before has always been really difficult.
It was amazing this year to have people come alongside and be really excited.
When God said, "Pray for 75,” I thought ‘you’re crazy.’ But He kept saying 75, so I kept praying.
And I found out that other people in our group were also praying for 75. When we technically hit our ticket deadline we were right at 75 and then they just kept coming, which is really exciting.
Is it just grade twelve students?
When we originally started, it was primarily designed for grade 11 to second year university. So senior high school to the beginning of university. But we’ve expanded that. We find that especially when we’re working with youth groups, or friend groups there are often a couple of outliers, so we decided to expand it to all of high school and all of university. At this event, we had a range from grade 9, to people who were 24-25.
How much effort goes into planning each one of these?
Oh man, it is hard to really say. Each one is a little different based on who our team is and what we choose for our theme, advertising and all of that. Sometimes you have teams that are really available and ready to help and take on different roles. But sometimes because of the time of year, things get really busy. For me personally, it’s a lot of work - but so, so worth it!
It’s a lot of hours – I basically write off the two weeks before as just every day efforts. It’s a lot of emailing, visiting stores and asking for donations and sponsorship, it’s keeping an online presence – which I’m not very good at! It’s learning how to market online, manage a website, and then actually being out at youth groups and school groups and just engaging with people. It’s a lot of work.
I don’t think I really imagined how much work goes into something like this when I first started. It’s been a learning experience, and just when you feel like you’re getting into a system something changes. And the next year is quite different. So it’s always just learning to adapt and to manage your time and make a lot of lists.
We try to really divide it up between our team as well. We try to put our youth team into categories of who would like to work on marketing, or graphic design, or pursue donations, or work on decorations. My mom is amazing and she keeps me sane. She keeps me focused on what needs to be done and she does the whole food side of it. She engages our caterer and helps to arrange the food, and dishes, and everything that goes into that. It really is a family affair, with my dad helping with the details, my brothers taking the roles of DJ and photographer, and my sister-in-law helping with so many of the details. I am so lucky to have a lot of people who help me out and help to take some of the load.
How do you make each prom special?
I think the biggest thing is our theme – every year we try to pick a specific theme that relates somehow to the issue of justice and what our role in issues of injustice are. We try to connect it as much as possible. Some of them are stronger than others.
Our first year was, "Into the Night,” and that touched on the idea of issues that involved darkness, or issues that happen in the dark, and how there is still light there and how God is still a light there. And how we as individuals can shine our light and let God’s light shine through us by offering our love and caring for people, no matter what the circumstances.
Our second event, "The Gallery,” which was my personal favourite, was based off an art gallery. It focused on different verses about how we are fearfully and wonderfully made. How God calls us each masterpieces, despite what our situation may be, or where we might be. So really thinking about people’s circumstances and how circumstances don’t define who we are or how much God loves us. Even though some people may feel forgotten, and as though society pushes them to the outside, our God still loves them and views them as beautiful masterpieces. What does it look like if we really truly view one another as masterpieces, and that frames our interactions?
And then this year was "Northern Lights” and it again touched on the idea of being a light, and how can we shine God’s light in the way that we interact with each other and how we love each other. And how can we be lights in how we raise awareness in issues of injustice. And help shine lights into those areas of the world where real injustice is happening. What is God calling us to do in those types of places?
There is always a meaning behind what we choose. We try not to just choose something on a whim.
Have things ever not gone according to plan, and what happens when they don’t?
ALL THE TIME. There are endless stories of things going wrong, from little mishaps , to events falling through as I mentioned. These mishaps have taught me a lot about learning to adapt. Even when things don’t work the way I plan - things will always fall into place.
It always works out, and the one thing I’ve just really learned is that I’ve got to keep my feet moving and let God be God. All I can do is keep moving and just do what needs to be done.
There always will be issues that arise and sometimes those are little issues, like not having the lights that we booked the week before, or sometimes those are major issues like not selling enough tickets. It’s just learning fast and making the best of each situation.
There’s been a lot of really big growing opportunities as God has taught me what it means to really just let Him work even though we may be way past when we should have a venue booked or pulling every individual lead we have to try to sell enough tickets. He always works something out.
Do you have a favourite moment from one of these proms?
So many. I’m always blown away. No matter what the chaos is or what stress I come into each event with I’m just always blown away by how much fun we have and the joy that is in that room, and the passion to learn about and fund these issues.
I’m trying to think specifically, but they all kind of just blur, especially when you come out so exhausted. I think the dance is always a highlight. Watching people from all different groups, and all different ages. People I know from outside who hate dancing. Seeing all these people I know come together and not being shy or awkward, but just coming together and dancing and having so much fun. It’s always been really cool. I love the way PWAP brings people together and the connections that are made.
I think the highlights for me are also seeing things that I really question if they are going to work. Usually those are really funny little things like the dismissal game we play for people to go for dessert. We did trivia this year. And I thought, "There’s a good chance that nobody will like this or want to get involved.” And just seeing everybody racing to put their hands up to answer questions about say, the history of the northern lights and how they were discovered. And really funny things like the density of whale blubber. But watching people throw their hands up and be really excited about it is something that brings me a lot of joy.
For me, especially in the first couple of events, the dance was a big point of stress because I’m not a very good dancer and I don’t really feel comfortable in those situations. So I was worried that it wouldn’t work. And often that’s the time when I’m really busy. But to be able to go back over the pictures later and seeing everybody in a circle in a conga line dancing around. Or seeing people lifting others on their shoulders and dancing, or having these crazy games and dances, it’s amazing.
And then I’m always amazed by the youth being so engaged with the speakers. Listening to the presentations and then coming up and asking me, or asking the speaker after what else they can do. It’s such a highlight. People enjoy learning about the issue and then there is such a passion there.
What would you like to accomplish in the next 5 years? Both personally and with PWAP?
Personally, I have no idea. I know God is calling me to some sort of work with people who face injustice, but I don’t know what that looks like. I want to continue to go where He leads me, I want to go back to Africa - I’ve been twice to Malawi.
I’d love to just continue to travel and see His world, and the people around the world, addressing the issues that people face. And just to learn as much as I can.
In terms of PWAP, we have a lot of dreams and ideas. We would love to see PWAP happening every year, with both a Toronto event and one north of the city. Doing two a year is our more foreseeable dream. Our ultimate dream is to have other youth groups or schools to take on PWAP as their year-end celebration. So that every school that does a prom or some kind of dance would consider taking PWAP and hosting their normal prom, but taking some of our materials. To have a speaker come in, or even just to have a normal prom but to have a percentage of the tickets going towards some kind of cause. That would be our dream.
How can people get involved or have their own prom with a purpose?
Right now our main goal is to develop a youth mentorship program. As someone who learned what it means to be an advocate, pretty much on my own, I know how impactful it can be to work together with those who have similar passions. Through both PWAP and my fundraising for projects in Malawi, I've learned so much about advocacy, running events, and fundraising.
I am not an expert, but I know that there are young people around me who would love to learn about these things. All I can do is share my personal experiences and what I have learned. So we’re trying to develop a program where young people can join our youth planning team and take ownership of an aspect of that. We also want to provide an opportunity to dive a little deeper into what this issue is. Why is this happening, what are the systematic causes behind it, and what are some of the different approaches that are being done to combat these types of issues.
Along with that, trying to help people think about what their skills are. For example, if they have a skill in graphic design or photography, how can we use that for PWAP? Or, if they really want to be able to speak in front of a group, how can we facilitate learning what it looks like to run a presentation at a youth group. Anything along those lines. We just really want to help engage youth because there is so much potential and passion in my generation. We often just don’t know how to use it. So our team is exploring how we can help empower the next generation of student leaders.
In terms of planning your own PWAP, we are anxiously awaiting the day we’ll have someone inquire about that. It would most definitely be case specific. It could be having myself meet with their team and working alongside them. We'd go over what an event looks like and what the details are that go into is, provide them with some of our materials and then really let them take ownership of it. Their team would be in charge of the details and we would be a point of reference if needed. Our dream again is for schools and youth groups to take this campaign on. Schools that are already going to have a prom - or are already planning a dance - have a perfect opportunity to add to their event. We don't want to take away from school events, but add an aspect of awareness and funding into it.
Where can people find you if they want to connect?
We have an email, firstname.lastname@example.org. We have a Facebook page, Instagram, and we just launched our website this year. Our website has a lot of material on it about our past events and current events we’re planning. We’re also trying to branch out a little from proms, such as our screening of the film She Has A Name.
We will be launching some of our other ideas on the website - resources for youth groups of good organizations and websites to look at for different Bible studies, and resource links for them to look at. We also recently added a section on what people or schools could do if they wanted to learn more about PWAP or to host an event.
Fun question-- time freezes for everyone but you for a day, what do you do?
Oh, that’s a tough one. I think I would be outside. I think I would go out into the woods, or out hiking or biking, and hopefully, my dog would not be frozen either. But just out in the woods to run and go crazy - to do cartwheels or dance without anyone watching me. Not having anyone in my way or being around. Just being outside. Probably a lot of dancing and a lot of belting songs at the top of my lungs. Pretty much what I do when I’m driving alone, but just out in public.
Is there anything else that you would like to tell our readers?
If there’s an issue on your heart, do something. That’s about it.
That’s all I’ve done, I haven’t done anything big, I’m just using the gifts that I have and acting on what my passions are, what I feel God has put on my heart and letting Him do the rest.
I just keep my feet moving and wait to see where the adventure goes. I know it’s going to be hard, it might be difficult, but if you just keep moving things are going to happen.
This article is part of a series featuring the amazing individuals who offer their time and talents to fundraise for us. Inspired? Get started with your fundraiser at IJM.ca/fundraise.