Then and Now: Local debutante program shifts its focus –

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The word “debutante” tends to conjure images of long white gloves, large gowns and opulent balls fit for a Disney princess. Although the Sarasota Debutante Ball lives up to the lavish image, it’s the year-long program leading up to the main event that gives an added sense of purpose to an often-typecast tradition.
White-gowned young women began gracing the Sarasota social scene in 1981, when the Debutante Program of Sarasota and Manatee Counties held its first deb ball. President Robin Serbin says that the early balls were similar to the stereotype — coming-out parties for the young women of the aristocratic class that served as a way for parents to introduce their daughters to society.
“It was all about money and who’s who,” Serbin says. “That’s what we’ve tried to dispel with our program, particularly since the time I got involved.”

Miss Sommer Jeanne Altier
Miss Allison Elizabeth Barber
Miss Caroline Foil Devitt
Miss Delainey Christine Dietz  
Miss Sydney Madison Edwards
Miss Whitney DeLaine Falconer
Miss Margaret "Maggie" Allison Fee   
Miss Emma Kate Freeman
Miss Callie Mackenzie Hester
Miss Anne Marie Stephanie Keen
Miss Kathryn Ann Kochevar
Miss Rachel Michelle Meringer     
Miss Hunter Nerys Newby
Miss Eliza Mary Quillen
Miss Lucy Marie Senseman
Miss Reagan Alexandria Seyer  
Miss Abby Marie Stout
Miss Andrea Lee Stultz
Miss Olivia Ruth Valek  
To learn more about each of the debutantes, click here. 
Serbin says that since she started her term as president in 2005, the Sarasota Debutante Program has switched its focus to first looking at the girls and not their families. Debutantes are invited to join the program (there is no application process), and members of the selection team get recommendations from locals who have been involved in the program in some capacity, such as past debutantes, their families and previous escorts.
The selection criteria is less economic and more about finding young women who are exceptional members of their community. Serbin says debutantes are female high school seniors in Sarasota and Manatee counties who do well academically, are involved in school and their community and who have outstanding moral character — young women whom she calls the “cream of the crop.”
To Serbin, the Sarasota Debutante Program is a means to not only honor these young women, but also to give them the skills they need to network and be successful in their future, whatever it might be. One of her favorite events is when past debutantes are invited to speak to the new debutantes in an open forum, in which questions regarding college and adult life are addressed. Current debutantes can speak candidly about their curiosities and concerns about the upcoming new phase of their life.
Sarasota’s debutante season starts in January, when the new class is chosen and ends in December, with the Debutante Ball. Those in-between months are filled with events, such as the debutante invitational (an informational event for invitees), orientation and moms’ social along with family-planned events that are organized by multiple families at once. These events are less formal social gatherings, but they all require a receiving line, a formal introduction and handwritten thank you notes afterward.
Although etiquette training and waltz classes are also an integral part of the debutante program, it’s the professionalism aspect of receiving lines and the thank you notes, as well as the opportunity to meet community members from two counties, that Serbin finds the most relevant.
Past Sarasota debutante Donna Berlin, who’s also mother to 2014 Sarasota debutante Cameron Berlin, agrees. She believes that the professionalism training is something that wasn’t part of the program when she participated in the 1986-87 class, and she thinks the way it’s set up now allows girls the chance to have extra support during a time of big changes in their life.
“They provide a risk-free environment for kids to make that transition to young adults,” Berlin says. “You’re making a transition from high school to college, which can be scary, and they give you a bridge.”
Serbin says this transition is made easier because of the program’s communal nature.
“I’ve been so proud of how there doesn’t seem to be the cliquishness or the social divisions,” she says. “Everyone is on an even field.”
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