Rebecca Newman got married April 12 under a shady oak tree at a ranch in rural Brandon. She held her reception in an elegantly decorated barn.
The 26-year-old college student wore brown cowboy boots and a dress she never thought she could afford, a white strapless number that laced up the back with rhinestones on the bodice and a Southern belle-style bottom.
She bought it new at Goodwill's annual wedding gown sale last year, joining hundreds of other brides who found their dream dress at a discount. It's too bad, Newman said, that she'll be one of the last.
After seven years, the charity is ending the Wedding Galas following Friday and Saturday's events in Oldsmar and Wesley Chapel.
"We believe the Wedding Galas have run their course,'' said Chris Ward, director of marketing and public relations for Goodwill Industries-Suncoast. "They have been wonderful, but this will be the finale.''
The decision came down to manpower. Putting on the galas is a labor-intensive, year-round task. The donations staff has to ask bridal boutiques for dress donations throughout the year, then pick up the gowns and store them in containers until the galas. Just before the sales, all the dresses must be sorted, priced and transported to the Goodwill Superstores in protective bags.
Setting up for the sales is equally time-consuming. Employees and volunteers have to partially clear out the stores of other merchandise and set up dressing rooms, large mirrors, pedestals in the gown gallery.
Doors don't open until 6 a.m. but brides-to-be start lining up as early as midnight to be among the first in line. Many bring tents and sleeping bags.
Kama Buchs, pronounced Bucks, arrived at the Spring Hill Superstore before dark last year with her mother, two daughters and niece to buy a dress for her May 4 wedding. The third try-on was the charm, a Da Vinci with a sweetheart neckline, silver beading and scalloped train.
"I had it in my heart that I was buying one that day,'' she said. "I was cheering, 'I found the dress. I found the one.' It was a really great experience.''
Goodwill strives to make galas a memorable experience, rather than just a trip to a drab thrift store. It pampers brides with snacks and photos and blasts Here Comes the Bride as they walk through the door. To keep the setting intimate, only a dozen or so people are allowed into the gallery at a time. Everyone cheers as brides find their big day dress.
The second she saw the $350 dress, Newman knew the gown was for her. It fit her budget — and her size 2 frame — perfectly.
"It's so beautiful. People asked me where I got it and I wasn't ashamed at all,'' said Newman, who lives in Brooksville and shops mostly at thrift stores. "I told them Goodwill.''
The wedding galas are a major fundraiser for Goodwill, having raised a total of $137,000 for its training programs for people with development disabilities. Recent state budget cuts have made the money critical, Ward said, noting that the agency will have to come up with new funding sources. Goodwill's local retail stores provide more than half of the agency's operating budget.
The dresses come from local bridal boutiques clearing out discontinued dresses and ones that have been tried on. Dresses this year cost $50 to $300, marked down more because it's the last sale. Some carry original price tags of more than $3,500 from designers such as Casablanca and Dere Kiang.
Each store will have more than 100 wedding gowns sizes 2 to 26 from Athena's Bridal Boutique in Clearwater and Diana's Bridal and Olga's Bridal Boutique, both in Tampa. Other items will include bridesmaid dresses, bridal shoes, new wedding accessories, attendant gifts and jewelry.
Goodwill hopes to replace the galas with a fundraiser that appeals to a broader audience but could reinstate the sales if a large dress donation comes in. That's what happened in 2007 when CC's Boutique in St. Petersburg donated more than 130 gowns. Goodwill got such a huge response from brides-to-be, it decided to make it an annual event, Ward said.
Over time, it has been increasingly difficult to duplicate the success of past sales, Ward said. Some boutiques have their own clearance sales or end up selling all their dresses.
"They've been very generous, but we've asked them again, again and again,'' she said.
Lesley Allen, vice president of CC's Boutique, said the store has enjoyed donating in the past but wasn't prepared to have dresses ready in time for this year's galas. Goodwill pushed up the galas a few weeks to better accommodate brides getting married this summer.
For Newman, buying her dress at Goodwill took away some of the pressure and freed up cash for other things on her wedding wishlist, like the cowboy boots she wore under the gown.
"I didn't have a lot of money to spend on my dress and to be able to get a dress fit for a queen at such a good price was really great,'' she said. "It makes me sad that other people won't be able to do the same thing.''
Susan Thurston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 225-3110.