Planning a wedding takes time, effort and, oftentimes, a significant monetary investment. Unfortunately, for many couples, circumstances may not always allow them to have the weddings of their dreams. Perhaps it’s a family illness, a military deployment or economic struggles that conspire to keep a couple from having their ideal wedding. But in Columbia, two organizations have made it their missions to ensure that some couples who can’t achieve their dream weddings on their own will receive outstanding gifts of kindness to make them happen.
For the University of South Carolina School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management, the idea of giving away a wedding began in 2005 when professor Annette Hoover was looking for a better way to teach her Wedding Planning and Management class. “No one was really learning anything with the pretend wedding and pretend budget, so I decided to try experiential learning,” she says. That learning through experience – complete with real budgets, firm deadlines and fabulous, heartwarming end results – has been a blessing to many couples and, without question, to the students themselves.
To find the most deserving couples, Annette’s class puts out a call for essays from brides and grooms-to-be. At least one member of the couple has to be affiliated with the University, and the students decide on the winning couple. Finalists are invited to the campus and the winning letter is read, revealing the winning couple to all who are present.
One winning couple truly tugged at the class members’ heartstrings. The bride requested assistance with her wedding to fulfill the dream of her identical twin sister’s husband, who was suffering from terminal brain cancer. His only wish was to walk his three-year-old daughter down the aisle before he passed away, as he knew he would not be alive to see his daughter’s own wedding day. That wish was fulfilled – the bride’s niece served as her flower girl and was proudly walked down the aisle by the bride’s brother-in-law.
Cameron Stone prepares to be flower girl for her aunt, Rebecca Creel. Her terminally ill father was able to walk her down the aisle, one of his last wishes. Photo courtesy of USC.
Though the wedding was bittersweet, it was also filled with much happiness and joy, as a new life together was also beginning. And no detail was overlooked, from the cake and the dress to the reception and honeymoon, even a special carriage ride for the bride and groom. And everything was planned – from start to finish – in 13 weeks by the students in Annette’s class. “The community has been extremely supportive,” she says. “Without their support and donations, we would not be able to have these lavish, wonderful, memorable weddings.”
The attention to detail is much appreciated by the chosen bride and groom, who turn over total control of the wedding to the USC students. “We run this just like a business,” adds Annette. And with costs averaging between $28,000 and $42,000 for each wedding, the need for thorough, comprehensive plans and timelines is a necessity.
For Phyllis James, owner of The Mitchell House and Gardens, the decision to give away a wedding came about in 2008 when the economy took a downturn. “We noticed some brides were having to scale down their wedding plans or postpone them altogether,” says Phyllis. “We’ve been in business 20 years, and we just love seeing couples in love and getting married at The Mitchell House. So we decided to see if we could help and give back to the community.”
The Mitchell House is a beautifully restored historic home located in the heart of Lexington. The first full-service special events location in the Lexington/Columbia area, it’s the perfect destination for a wedding. Phyllis and her team decided to hold a wedding contest, and the winning couple received a free December wedding that included a beautiful, fully-catered reception for 100 guests. The response was so great that they have given away five weddings since.
The Mitchell House Wedding Giveaway Recipients: (top row L to R) Christina Gracey and Dustin Batzel, Winter 2008; Tiffany Hollis and Kenneth Hibshman, Summer 2009; Cecil Bradstreet and Kimberly Wright, Winter 2009; (bottom row, L to R) Holly White and Earron Sturges, Summer 2010; Roxanna Derrick and Rusty Jernigan, Winter 2010; Amanda Garner and Logan Royals, Winter 2011
In 2009, the contest was open to anyone in the military who was serving or had served in the past year. The drawing took place on Valentine’s Day, and the couple was married on July 4th in a wedding set in red, white and blue. Another contest was open to first responders, including police, firemen, EMTs. Yet another was open to those looking to plan a winter wedding, and most recent was an aptly planned royal wedding, paying homage to the Prince of Wales’ recent nuptials.
In the fall of 2012, The Mitchell House and the University of South Carolina are partnering to offer what promises to be the greatest wedding giveaway yet, complete with something old, new, borrowed and blue. “It is such a pleasure to teach young people and to see how they really come to know how to do this. We are creating professionals, and that’s what the industry needs,” says Annette.
But even more than that, they’re creating memories that will last a lifetime.
As part of their 20th anniversary celebration this year, The Mitchell House and Gardens will be hosting a reunion of couples who were married there. Visit www.themitchellhouseandgardens.com for more information.
Photo courtesy of USC