Wish Upon a Wedding helps couples facing terminal illness get married

This week's cover story, "In Sickness and In Health," tells the story of Jen Berman, a Denver attorney who lost her fiance, Doug Furcht, to brain cancer last year. Jen had already bought a wedding dress for their upcoming nuptials; after Doug's death, she donated it to Brides for a Cause, an organization that raises money for a nonprofit called Wish Upon a Wedding that helps couples dealing with terminal illness get married.

Jen was pleased to find an organization that not only understands why couples without much time left would want to get married -- but helps make it happen. "Even if you know that your time is fleeting," Jen says, "you still want to spend it together."

We spoke to the founders of each organization about why they do what they do.

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California wedding planner Liz Guthrie founded Wish Upon a Wedding in 2009. The idea grew out of a one-time contest she organized to give away a $100,000 dream wedding to a couple facing hardship. As the contest progressed, she says, "I saw the potential that there were more couples than just the one that was going to win this contest."

So she formed a nonprofit that recruits wedding vendors like cake bakers, photographers and florists to provide free weddings and vow renewals for deserving couples. To be eligible, couples must include one partner who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness and given a prognosis of less than five years to live or who has endured a "life-altering circumstance," such as being seriously wounded as a result of military service. The organization grants wishes regardless of sexual orientation.

Continue for more on Wish Upon a Wedding and Brides for a Cause.

Wish Upon a Wedding started out small, with chapters in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago and St. Louis. But the organization has since expanded, and recently began granting wishes to couples in all fifty states. It has also begun providing expedited weddings at hospitals and hospice-care facilities for couples in which one partner may only have a few weeks, or even days, to live. To date, Wish Upon a Wedding has granted 63 wishes and has several more -- including one in Colorado -- in the works.

The Colorado chapter of Wish Upon a Wedding is now in its second year. It plans to grant its first wish -- a vow renewal -- this coming fall, says chapter president Kelsey Bigelow, a wedding photographer. The chapter is also looking for additional members to serve on its board. Wedding experience isn't necessary, though it can be helpful, Bigelow says.

The main fundraiser for Wish Upon a Wedding is Brides for a Cause, an organization founded two years ago by Erin Scharf, a wedding-industry professional who was familiar with Wish Upon a Wedding and wanted to find a way to help. "I believe in being able to reuse wedding dresses for a cause," says Scharf, who is based in Portland. "There are people who are faced with a life-threatening illness and who are wanting to get married and might not have the budget. You have to put yourself in their shoes."

Brides can donate their used wedding dresses (from 2008 or newer) to Brides for a Cause, and the proceeds from selling those dresses are evenly split between Brides for a Cause and Wish Upon a Wedding. The money that goes to Wish Upon a Wedding is used to pay for the parts of the weddings -- such as catering, the dress or venue rental -- that are sometimes difficult to get donated.

Brides for a Cause has an inventory of more than 2,000 dresses -- many of them designer gowns available at discount prices. The average price for a dress, Scharf says, is $400. The organization also has a boutique store in Portland and sells dresses at several road shows throughout the year.

According to Scharf, Jen's dress has not yet been sold.

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