“Five hundred wedding dresses?” Bill Moen marveled, as his mind processed the incredible news the woman on the phone was telling him. “And you want all of them to be donated to veterans and their families?” It was an amazing windfall for the Camden County, New Jersey, freeholder. As the head the Office of Military and Veterans Affairs for more than 26,000 vets in his community, Moen was always searching for new ways to honor the service and sacrifice of vets.
“Yes, sir!” the woman said. She explained that the realty firm she worked for, M&M Realty Partners, had inherited the gowns from a bridal shop that had shuttered its doors in the summer of 2017. They’d been looking to get them into the right hands for months.
“What do you think?” she asked.
Bill’s heart soared. Coming from a military family himself, he knew firsthand the emotional and financial struggles these families faced. They can save the money they’d have spent on a wedding dress and put it toward a down payment on a house or student loans, he reflected.
“Absolutely — thank you!” he exclaimed, smiling widely. “We’ll take them all!”
Giving Away 500 Wedding Dresses
Within a matter of weeks, Bill and his team had transferred all the dresses to the city’s records and documents facility. They began planning a pop-up wedding dress giveaway event for the families of veterans and active members of the military in their community.
“Each bride will be pampered and have the opportunity to pick out a dress and take it home, free of charge,” he explained to his enthusiastic team. “It’s our way of saying thank you for their service to our country.”
Excited, the group circulated flyers on social media. They invited brides-to-be from across New Jersey to sign up for one of the 200 slots they had open to give away the first wave of gowns.
But as word spread, excited requests from brides began pouring in from across the country. It became clear that the idea was a bigger hit than they’d dreamed.
“We have to expand this!” Bill enthused, adding another day and 100 more slots to the event. “We have to make sure everyone gets the dress they’ve always wanted.”
Saluting Their Sacrifice
On Valentine’s Day 2019, Bill’s team hosted the first “Salute the Dress” event at the Camden County Boathouse. They transformed the venue into a bridal salon, complete with a team of fashion experts greeting each bride-to-be.
With their help, each woman pored over racks of beautifully beaded and lace dresses — some worth up to $10,000. Every bride chose three dresses, veils, and accessories to try on. Tears and laughter rang out as they modeled for family and friends.
“It’s like a dream come true,” one soon-to-be bride smiled, holding up the event sign that read, “I Saluted the Dress” when she’d chosen her perfect gown. “I feel like a princess!”
For others, the dresses were to be used for another purpose: to celebrate the vows they’d already shared. One woman was planning to wear her gown to renew vows with her veteran husband. “It’s perfect,” she beamed. “I want to wear it forever.”
Another female veteran is wearing hers for her 20th anniversary. “I’m so grateful they are doing something for women veterans,” she says. “It’s more than a dress, it shows us we matter.”
For Bill and his team, who gave away 250 dresses that day, it’s a small way to give back — and one that they have continued each year, starting with the remaining 250 gowns. “These families have given us the ultimate sacrifice,” Bill says. “Being able to honor them is by far the greatest gift of all!”
A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.
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