A high school English teacher taught her students a lesson they won't soon forget -- about the power of social media.
Every year, Cen'Cere Cooks -- who teaches high-risk, inner-city students at SEA Charter School in South Central Los Angeles -- helps the girls in her class get prom dresses for the big night, often paying for the gowns out of her own pocket. When donations were slow this year, she decided she needed a new approach. At the suggestion of a student, she went on Twitter to solicit dress donations from celebrities. Amazingly, the last person she asked, but the first one to respond, was none other than Oprah Winfrey.
Although Oprah has 12 million Twitter followers and a steady stream of mentions flowing in all day, every day, something about the 31-year-old teacher's request caught her eye. "Initially she responded 'no' because she just did a dress giveaway, but then she tweeted, 'Let me see what I can do,'" Cooks tells Yahoo! TV. "I was amazed: Oprah's going to see what she can do?! That was good enough. But then she put me in contact with her assistant and we exchanged emails. The assistant wanted to know more about the school, the kids, and why I have this passion for them." Two days later, "I was in class and my phone started beeping, beeping. The kids said, 'Maybe Oprah is tweeting you again' -- and she was. She said her friends at Macy's would be willing to help us."
The process of getting her students dresses was far better than the teacher could have imagined. Initially, Cooks -- who worked with Oprah's production company Harpo and Macy's -- was going to pick up the dresses for her students, but a better idea blossomed. "I was like, 'That's exciting, but it would be better if kids could do it,'" Cooks says. After asking if she could bring along five of the 25 students, they came back with a better suggestion. "They said we could do better than that -- we'll have all the girls go. They chartered us a bus. They bought breakfast and lunch for the kids. There was a styling team to help pull dresses. They wouldn't let any girl go out without a dress. We all worked together until every girl walked out of the store with a dress. It was pretty amazing."
Although Oprah herself didn't attend the shopping trip, she has been keeping up with Cooks and her students on Twitter. She posted a photo from the shopping trip, writing: "Hey @CenCereCooks just saw pics of the girls picking out prom dresses. Thanks @Macys for making it happen!" When one of Oprah's followers commented on the photo, she wrote, "That happened cause of a tweet connect."
Cooks said her students were so appreciative of her efforts that they threw her a party as a thank you. "The girls surprised me with a party," says Cooks. "They got me a plaque to show their appreciation -- because of the dresses and then just because they just love me. They go, 'Even when we get on your nerves we know that you're still going to do something for us!'"
She already has the next "something" in mind. Cooks plans to help her male students find suits for the prom, which takes place in July and at which she will be a chaperone. "Now the boys are like, 'Tweet Diddy, Miss Cooks! We need tuxes," she said with a laugh. "I told them I'd figure out something for them, too."
As for how she caught Oprah's eye in the first place, Cooks, who has been teaching for eight years, says it was all about timing. "There was nothing more significant about my tweet than anyone else's," she says. "Oprah just has a heart to give to people -- that's her gift in life. It just so happened to be that we just connected at the right exact moment for me to be the recipient of one of her gifts."