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By Deidre S. Williams

News Staff Reporter

Marriza Ayanna Evans is looking forward to wearing her white dress and gloves to the upcoming Debutante Pageant and Ball.

“I love it,” said Marriza, 18, a senior at Emerson Culinary School who has Down syndrome.

The biennial fundraiser, sponsored by Gamma Phi Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, is scheduled for Saturday. Marriza is one of 15 local girls participating in the 2012 debutante season. Being around the other girls makes her feel like she’s just one of the gang.

Marriza’s father, Keith, said the AKA debutante program has been a good experience for his oldest daughter.

“It’s an opportunity for her to be involved with teenagers who don’t have disabilities,” he said.

Founded in 1908 at Howard University in Washington, D.C., by a group of women who were just one generation removed from slavery, the AKA sorority is the oldest Greek-lettered organization established by African-American, college-educated women.

Over time, the sorority has evolved into an international organization with chapters all over the world, but its primary mission to be of service to mankind has remained the same since 1908.

“That’s what we’re all about,” said Elizabeth Brown, president of the Gamma Phi Omega Chapter, which has been sponsoring the debutante program since 1949, when the first ball was held at Kleinhans Music Hall.

Aside from the formal presentation or debut of the young ladies to society, the program also has a yearlong leadership development component.

“We’re giving them critical skills,” Brown said.

To be eligible to participate, the high schoolers must have at least an 85 grade-point average and provide references. The girls also are required to participate in cultural and community service activities and attend leadership workshops.

As part of their community service obligations, the girls volunteered at the Central City Cafe, a soup kitchen located in the outreach center of Durham Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church on East Eagle Street, said Yvonne Evans, a sorority sister and grandmother to Marriza Ayanna.

The debutantes also spent time cleaning flower pots at the Delavan-Grider Community Center as well as a stretch of Oak Street downtown that is part of AKA’s Adopt-A-Highway initiative, Brown said.

Cultural activities included a Mother/Daughter high tea at the White Linen Tea House in North Tonawanda. The girls also attended the play “From the Mississippi Delta,” written by the late Buffalo playwright Endesha Ida Mae Holland, about life in the Deep South at the dawn of the civil rights movement.

Last month, the sorority hosted a Rites of Passage ceremony to mark the passage from childhood to young womanhood.

The tradition is an African ritual meant to maintain African and African-American culture and tradition. The component was added in the 1982 debutante season and also focuses on the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the girls. The debutantes underwent months of lessons and activities to learn about their heritage.

In addition to Marriza Ayanna, the other 2012 debutantes are: Janae Adams, Jada Barnes, Jessica Benton, Bianca Brice, Essence Chisholm, Jada Cooper, Jordan Daniels, Roslyn Davis, Breonna Jackson, Taylor Johnson, Hallie McKinnie, Erica Mitchell, Autumn Rolack and Jaci Smith.

The pageant is free and open to the public and will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. Saturday in the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center, followed by the ball, where the girls receive awards and presentations. Tickets for the ball are $50 and can be purchased by calling 235-8840.

email: dswilliams@buffnews.com