When 20 young debutantes and their escorts were presented to almost 800 guests Dec. 22 at the San Francisco Marriott Marquis, the "Affair to Remember Cotillion" was the culmination of nearly a year of preparation by these young ladies and gentlemen and the Oakland Bay Area Chapter of Links Incorporated. As each one was formally presented to the assembled guests, they were welcomed into society.

The evening marked a rite of passage, signaling the entry of a group of extremely accomplished African Americans into the community. Equally important, the proceeds from the Cotillion will enable Links to benefit a number of philanthropic projects within the community.

For this year's 56th Cotillion, a Bay Area tradition, the debs and their escorts represented the cities of Oakland, Berkeley, Castro Valley, Hayward and El Cerrito, and all were selected based on their outstanding academic achievement, leadership skills and community service.

The selection process began early in 2012. Felicia Stuckey-Smith, president of the Oakland Bay Area Chapter and a former deb herself, has been involved with the Cotillion for four decades.

"Some are nominated and some are known by our members through other organizations, schools, churches or the business community," she said. "The debs and escorts go through an application process that includes submitting their transcripts, writing an essay and submitting two letters of recommendation, one from a teacher or counselor and the second from someone from the community."

After a committee screened the applications, 20 young women and 21 young men were chosen. The Cotillion always has one extra escort in case someone has to drop out.

Once selected, preparations for the organization's only fundraiser of the year began with the solicitation of ads and the assembling of family pages for the souvenir booklet.

In August, the debs, escorts and their families meet for a social event, and the next month the college-bound young people begin a series of three workshops on college planning and career options.

"One workshop covered health and self-esteem, another one dealt with financial literacy and the third with leaving the nest," Stuckey-Smith said.

During the months of November and December, rehearsals were held, and the debs and escorts participated in a community service project.

The Oakland chapter has adopted Lafayette Elementary School in Oakland, and this year the young people participated in shopping and providing Thanksgiving meals for 50 families from that school.

All of the profits from the Cotillion go back into the community, and this year Stuckey-Smith predicted the group would raise close to $100,000 from the souvenir booklet, the ads that are sold, tables that are purchased and corporate donations.

Along with the Thanksgiving meals, Links provides year-round programs that enrich the lives of children at Lafayette Elementary, including a yearly backpack drive, field trips to the theater and museums, and sponsored science and math nights at the school.

"We also provide scholarships through the Celebration of Excellence program, donate money to historically black colleges, give scholarships to students attending UC Berkeley and donate money to the Marcus Foster Scholarship and other local charitable organizations," Stuckey-Smith said.

Participating in the Cotillion results in tangible and long-lasting gains in terms of close friendships and family ties.

"Many gain self-esteem and an understanding of who they are," Stuckey-Smith said. "This helps prepare them for many of the life skills that will confront them as they go into adulthood."

Links Incorporated views their yearly Cotillion as a gift, not only one that helps the debs and escorts on their way into adulthood but also a gift to the community, in acknowledging these outstanding and extraordinary teens.

"We want them to know that their accomplishments are worthwhile and very appreciated by their families but also by the community," Stuckey-Smith said.

Links Incorporated is a nonprofit international volunteer, service and philanthropic organization dedicated to community outreach. For more information about the organization, go to www.oaklandbayarealinks.org.

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