After her journey with breast cancer, a woman and her fiance get a wedding with all the trimmings — gratis. The Wedding Pink gives away one each year.
LIZ and LEE GREEN*, center, pose with, at left, 2011 Wedding Pink bride MELISSA CHILDS; second from right, CHERYL UNGAR, founder of the Wedding Pink; and, at right, wedding planner ANN MARLIN. - PHOTOS BY VAN BUREN PHOTOGRAPHY
IT WAS A CLEAR day in Sedalia, Colorado, and an unseasonably warm 70 degrees. Just before the sun dipped below the horizon, as 75 of their closest friends and family looked on, a couple prepared to exchange their wedding vows. With those words, a three-year relationship turned into the marriage of Liz and Lee Green*.
“I just kept looking around, and the fact that all those people made it out to a destination wedding was kind of mind-blowing to me,” recalls Lee Green.
It’s not unusual to be amazed by the turnout for the biggest day of your life, but this wedding on Oct. 25, 2018 was particularly awe-inspiring.
It wasn’t just because of the stunning backdrop at Sanctuary Golf Course or even the pop of the bride’s maroon bouquet against her beaded blush gown; rather, it was the fact that the entire event had been paid for in full by vendors. Everything, from the dress to the cake to the venue, had been donated to the Maryland couple, all thanks to a little-known initiative called the Wedding Pink.
According to its website, the Wedding Pink is an “annual wedding giveaway package presented to a couple whose lives have been recently touched by breast cancer.” Founded by Cheryl Ungar in 2010, the Wedding Pink has a simple mission: to offer compassion to those affected by the disease.
“About 27 and a half years ago, at the age of 30, I was diagnosed with breast cancer,” Ungar says. “I’ve been a professional photographer for my entire career, and I used to shoot a lot of weddings. … I came up with the idea that I could use my talents and the people I know in the industry to give away a wedding to somebody whose life has been affected by breast cancer, kind of bringing myself back to when I was originally diagnosed.”
Ungar founded her own nonprofit, Cheryl Ungar Gives (cherylungargives.com) and, in 2011, gave away her first wedding. “Back then it was hard, because nobody knew who we were,” Ungar says. “Convincing people to donate was much more challenging. Even getting people to apply was difficult.”
To raise awareness, Ungar went to cancer centers and hospitals around Colorado, asking anyone who might interact with young couples dealing with breast cancer to spread the word. She even created postcards and kept them in her car.
“In Colorado, you can pay extra to get a pink license plate that designates breast cancer. So anytime I saw a car with a pink license plate, I stuck a postcard in their windshield,” Ungar says with a laugh. “I don’t know if that led to anything, but I just figured, what the heck.”
Clearly, something worked: Melissa Childs applied. “I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, when I was 30 years old,” Childs says. “I was with my boyfriend at the time for about a year when I was diagnosed, and we hadn’t really talked about getting married. It was really tough, because I didn’t know what our future held. I just remember thinking, ‘I have cancer, and now I might lose the love of my life.’” Childs’ boyfriend stuck by her. A week after they got engaged, she received an email, sent by a fellow support group member, about the Wedding Pink. “It was like a sign,” Childs says, “so we applied for it and we won.”
The idea of a free wedding seemed “too good to be true,” she admits. Now that she knows it’s not, she and her husband, Jeff, have joined the Wedding Pink’s board of directors. “This is truly such a heartfelt organization. There are no strings attached,” Childs says. “Cheryl is a survivor, I’m a survivor, (and) my husband went through it with me. We really want to just make somebody’s day, because we know what it’s like to go through it.”
Brides who win a wedding might wonder if that means releasing control over the biggest day of their lives. Luckily, they don’t have to worry.
For the past six years, every wedding put on by the Wedding Pink has been planned by Ann Marlin at Cloud 9 Weddings & Papers (cloud9bliss.com), a boutique Denverbased wedding planning and design firm. But she doesn’t make decisions without the help of the bride and groom. “Our goal at Cloud 9 is to completely customize a unique wedding for our couples as well as an amazing experience for the guests,” Marlin says. “We want these memories to stay with the couple for a lifetime.”
Two details are nonnegotiable: the venue and date. Because all the vendors are based in Colorado, the weddings always take place in that state. In addition, the wedding usually takes place on a Thursday to ensure that vendors don’t lose business by participating. The bride and groom handpick all the other details, including the flowers and the menu.
“Once I get the chance to meet the couple, I learn what their goals are,” Marlin says. “I learn what they gravitate toward in terms of style and colors. I create a design board, and I get the vendors in place.”
“We try to make it as complete as possible,” Ungar adds. The wedding is capped at 100 guests, including the bride, groom and bridal party. For liability reasons, alcohol is not included, although the couple can provide it. In addition, the bride and groom are responsible for their travel expenses for the wedding and another trip or two to meet with the vendors. Marlin estimates that each Wedding Pink wedding takes eight to 12 months to plan and costs from $45,000 to $55,000 — all donated. “That’s a lot of money. It’s a huge commitment. Our vendors are so amazing, and they all have their reasons why they want to be involved, whether they have a family member or close friend (affected by breast cancer),” Marlin says. “It touches them all in different ways. We all have those stories.”
The Wedding Pink team members agree that their toughest task is choosing the couple from among the handful that apply each year. They look for people with whom they can identify and who seem gracious and cooperative. “Everyone is deserving,” Childs says. “Everyone is in need of this.” The broad requirements open the opportunity to anyone whose life has been recently touched by breast cancer. “The experience is not limited to the bride,” the website states, “but could be with the bride or groom’s extended family.” “The application process is reasonably involved,” Liz Green says. “We had to submit a couple of essays. I asked Lee to describe me in his own words, and I described him in mine. It felt like buying a lottery ticket — you do it, and you don’t really think you’re going to win. But then we did … I just burst into tears, I was so shocked.”
Childs remembers the feeling well. “It really warms my heart to give this wedding to someone else, because I know how amazing it is,” she says. “But as amazing as it was to win the wedding, it’s a million times better to give it away to someone else.”
Ungar agrees. “The whole premise of the Wedding Pink is to offer a silver lining for people with breast cancer,” she says, “to offer something nice after somebody has been through something so horrific.”
For Marlin, that silver lining really shines during toasts — the moment of the evening when it all comes full circle. “There’s never a dry eye after these speeches, because it’s the most heartfelt, meaningful celebration,” she says. “With everything these couples have been through … knowing that we were able to bring all these people together who have been there for them and supported them through some of their worst times and allowed them to celebrate this amazing love — for me, that’s all I need.”