By Kelly Burch
---- — As the nation celebrates the brave veterans who have served our country, it’s also important to acknowledge the sacrifices made by the loved ones of these troops.
Although they never went to war, these people served in their own way by holding down the home front through difficult times of separation.
To that end, a national charity with local roots is working to help servicemen, servicewomen and their loved ones with their weddings.
Heidi Janson of North Andover has given away more than 10,000 gowns to military brides since founding her charity, Brides Across America, in 2008. On Thursday at 11 a.m., Janson will add to that number as she hosts an Operation Wedding Gown giveaway at Tulle, the bridal salon that she owns in Georgetown. Qualified brides should register ahead of time.
Janson says that her huge effort started with a simple desire: “I wanted to say thank you. I wanted to do something to give back and make a difference.”
Janson was inspired when she heard a story on NPR about soldiers in Afghanistan who felt forgotten. She knew that she wanted to do something to help those who are serving our country, so she turned to what she knows best: the wedding industry. She hosted an event where she gave away 60 gowns at her boutique, which was located in Seabrook at the time. The brides were thrilled, and the bridal community was eager to get involved.
“Many of my friends in the industry were looking for ways to host events in their towns, and they asked me to organize them,” she said. “We started it really small, and here we are.”
Brides Across America provides gowns to women who are engaged or have had a civil ceremony and are planning a wedding in the next 18 months. The bride or her fiance must have been deployed within the past five years or have an upcoming deployment. The only cost to the bride is a $20 registration fee.
“We want to help as many people as we can,” Janson said.
Last year, Janson was honored at the White House as part of the Joining Forces Community Challenge, which recognizes service and dedication to military families. Janson got to meet first lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, who founded the challenge.
“It was a great honor to be there with a lot of other nonprofits that were doing good for the military,” Janson said.
Brides Across America has also been written about in People magazine and featured on national news shows. Today, the organization helps bridal salons across the country organize events.
“We welcome any salon that wants to take part in a good thing,” Janson said.
Janson has helped thousands of couples and says that every experience is rewarding. However, a few couples stand out in her mind, even years later.
In 2009, she met a couple with whom she bonded right away. Ryan Dwyer had been wounded in combat, and his fiance, Joanna Reddy, was preparing to be deployed. The Rochester, N.Y.-based couple were struggling to plan a wedding amid Reddy’s training schedule.
Dwyer got in touch with Brides Across America to help find Reddy a wedding gown, but Janson didn’t stop with the dress.
“We got their whole wedding taken take of,” she said.
Reddy received a $5,000 gown for free. Then, Janson reached out to her contacts in the wedding industry and was able to have everything donated to the couple within a matter of weeks. On Sept. 9, 2009, Reddy and Dwyer were married in an intimate ceremony on Plum Island.
“Heidi asked me if this was everything I thought it would be,” Reddy told The Daily News at the time. “It is even more than I could have hoped for.”
Seeing military brides get the weddings of their dreams is exactly what keeps Janson motivated.
“To take time out to help each bride and hear their stories is what we’re all about,” she said. “To help people that give their service to out country; there is a lot we take for granted. It’s nice to give back.”
For more information on how to qualify and register for an “Operation Wedding Gown” event or to learn how to become involved with Brides Across America, visit www.bridesacrossamerica.com.