ANDOVER, Mass. - A nonprofit organization is spending Veterans Day helping military members and first responders say "yes" to the dress — an effort that has been ongoing for more than a decade, bringing joy to thousands of brides.
Brides Across America, founded by Heidi Janson, has gifted over 26,000 dresses and more than two dozen weddings. Each year, the organization hosts dozens of gown giveaway events at participating bridal salons nationwide around Independence Day and Veterans Day as a way of thanking U.S. service members.
This year, the organization is holding events at 22 locations across the U.S. during dates around Veterans Day, as well as a storewide giveaway at the Brides Across America outlet near its headquarters in Andover, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston.
The giveaways are open to military and first responder brides, or the fiancé of a military member or first responder.
"There are certain people in the time that I’ve been doing this — I think it's been 14 years now — that I will always remember," Janson said. "They've touched my heart just as much as I've touched theirs."
How Brides Across America got its start
Janson has a background in the bridal industry, which includes having owned and operated multiple bridal salons on the East Coast. In 2008, she began doing charity work — some of which was based in Afghanistan — which led her to read about a soldier stationed in the country who said they felt forgotten.
"A lot of the attention and care packages would go to Iraq, and not Afghanistan. I was just like, ‘Wow, we are so lucky here as a nation that we can just go to work and not really know about these things,’" Janson recalled. "I just felt like I wanted to give back, and what I knew best was (bridal)."
Janson was expanding her bridal salon at the time, around July of 2008, and decided to host a free wedding gown giveaway for military brides. Over two days, the salon gave away 60 dresses and she watched women transform in front of her eyes, filled with happiness and tears.
"I’ll never forget my first bride that walked in the door and her fiance who was based in Afghanistan," Janson said. "She held a picture of him. Just seeing how hard it was for them to be apart... and also the joy that it brought them to have somebody think of them."
Brides are pictured in a provided image after having said "yes" to the dress, thanks to the organization. (Credit: Brides Across America)
Who Brides Across America serves
Many of the brides she’s worked with are often waiting for their fiances to return home from deployment — or vise versa. Sometimes both are deployed in separate locations. Some couples have had babies who were never seen by their military spouses, and others are caring for a spouse that was injured in the line of duty. For many, the cost to pay for a big wedding just isn’t within their means.
"The military is so difficult because they get moved around so much. And not to mention having children along with that," Janson noted. She added that the average cost of a wedding dress is around $1,500-$1,600.
"And that’s just the dress. That’s not including everything else," she said. "Just having that gifted is a dream come true for a lot of people."
Those eligible for the nonprofit’s wedding gown giveaways include all mobilized reservists in support of Iraqi Freedom. It also accepts first responders (and fiances), including police, fire, 911, EMT/paramedics, correctional officers and hospital-employed brides that have assisted in COVID-19 efforts.
For those unable to attend a wedding dress giveaway event, including those who may be currently deployed, Brides Across America also sells discounted gowns online.
Brides Across America has gifted at least 25 weddings
The organization also gifts weddings to some lucky couples, including a pair of Army medics. One had been based in Afghanistan and the other in Alaska, and they finally got to say "I do" during a recent ceremony in Chicago. Another couple, who met while serving in Iraq together, was gifted a destination wedding in 2017 at Hawks Cay Resort in the Florida Keys.
Military and first responder couples are encouraged to share their story with Brides Across America for a chance to be selected.
"This is is a love story and it’s something that makes everybody happy. There is so much negativity that is spread, and this is a happy occasion. Weddings are always beautiful," Janson said.
How to get involved with Brides Across America
Like many businesses and nonprofits, Janson noted how Brides Across America lost a lot of funding during the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, a study published earlier this year found that more than one-third of U.S. nonprofits were actually in jeopardy of closing because of the financial harm inflicted over the past year and a half.
But she added that the organization continues to "make a huge impact" for couples and is supported by bridal salons, retailers, wedding venues and other sponsors. It also heavily relies on financial donations.
Brides Across America also accepts donated wedding gowns that are less than four years old, in good condition and are between sizes 0-6 and 16-30.
Another pride holds an "I said yes" sign after picking out a wedding gown, courtesy of the organization. (Credit: Brides Across America)
Janson noted that her goal was always "to build partners across the country and make a difference" in communities.
"So that’s why we continue doing what we do here: to meet the girls and military couples that are paying service to our country," she said.
Other ways to honor those who have served on Veterans Day 2021
Businesses and organizations are coming together to thank and honor veterans and active-duty service members for Veterans Day, which is Nov. 11. Click here for a running list of free goods, services and discounts being offered.
Most businesses will require proof of military service to access these discounts.
In addition, the FOX Corporation and its employees are working with U.S.VETS to support their "Make Camo Your Cause" campaign by spreading awareness to the campaign and wearing camo to support the cause on Veterans Day.
In order to bring visibility and awareness to the campaign, FOX is asking businesses to purchase apparel from U.S.VETS online shop and wear camo with U.S.VETS this Veterans Day and post on social media using #HONORUSVETS. U.S.VETS is also looking for volunteers in the fight against veteran homelessness.
"If you are compassionate, hardworking, or just looking for a way to give back to the community, volunteering at a U.S.VETS location would be a rewarding experience for you," U.S.VETS wrote.
The national nonprofit relies on corporate and community support to help reach its goal through partnerships including direct financial contributions, employee giving and matching gifts, campaigns, grants and employee volunteer engagement.
In addition, employers can "hire a vet" through the U.S.VETS Career Network, which connects professional and student veterans with lasting careers they love.
Donations to the organization can also be made on its website.
This story was reported from Cincinnati. This station is owned by the FOX Corporation.