Residents of the town have gathered at Hargreaves Mall for the second annual Ball in the Mall – a traditional debutante ball with a twist.

The smiling couples in flowing gowns and slick tuxedos are past and present students at Doxa School Bendigo, a flexible learning institution for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

A small school of 50 students, Doxa School caters to children who have struggled to adapt to a mainstream schooling environment and are returning to the classroom after being out of it for some time.

Principal John Russell says his students have often experienced some degree of trauma in their lives and can struggle to integrate into their new environment.

The Ball gives those students the opportunity to experience something unique, as well as celebrate their place in the local Bendigo community.

“[The students] are not connected to school groups or community groups … and many of the kids would never have been able to afford to do a formal debutante ball...” Russell says.

While the school was involved early on, he says it was the community that drove the initiative from the beginning.

“…it started with a group of local people who just wanted to do something positive for these young people,” he says.

“[They] recognised that these people … are vulnerable and a bit disconnected from the broader community, [and saw] this as a real opportunity to support them and actually connect with them … make them feel like they are part of Bendigo ... and they’re important people in our community.”

The eight debutante couples were dressed by local business Grant Rule Mens Wear, fussed over by students at Bendigo TAFE’s Lotus Hair and Beauty Salon and escorted to the event in style, care of the Custom Addiction Classic Car Club.

Hargreaves Mall itself was transformed into an outdoor ballroom for the event, complete with a live band, dance floor, MC and catered seating for invited guests.

Russell says he can’t speak highly enough of the ball and its impact on the students.

“…it’s just fantastic to see these kids that would never have had the opportunity – for example girls – to get dressed up beautifully, be presented like that [and] learn how to dance.

“[And] just the whole range of skills that come from it … the confidence and this feeling of self-worth that the kids get out of it, is pretty amazing.”