Wedded to charity

Brides, grooms search for meaningfulness instead of lavish gifts
By Pamela H. Sacks
TELEGRAM & GAZETTE

2003


In many ways, Ellen O’Donnell was a traditional bride. She wore an exquisite white silk gown and carried a bouquet of Black Magic roses.

Like most young couples, she and her then-to-be husband Eric Weyant wanted to have a memorable celebration, and their parents were generous in making that happen. A reception after the March 1 ceremony in Providence featured dinner for 150 guests, who toasted the bride and groom with champagne and danced to music spun by a professional disc jockey.

Yet Ms. O’Donnell and Mr. Weyant, both 26, also believed that the day should reflect their style and values. They have simple tastes, and they have volunteered their time to needy children.

“We didn’t want a lot of stuff and fuss,” Ms. O’Donnell, a doctoral student in psychology at Clark University in Worcester, said the other day. “We had been to a wedding that was over the top, and we were both overwhelmed and a little uncomfortable with what it cost.”

Not surprisingly, they were also disturbed at the thought of receiving a deluge of expensive gifts. So when friends told them about a nonprofit organization called the I Do Foundation, they were thrilled.

By registering on the organization’s Web site, www.idofoundation.org, a bride and groom provide a mechanism for a portion of a gift purchase to go to charity. In the case of Ms. O’Donnell and Mr. Weyant, a guest could also opt to forgo a gift and make a donation in their honor.

The couple didn’t stop there. At their wedding reception, each guest was presented with a small ribbon-tied box containing a note saying that in lieu of favors, the newlyweds had made a donation to the Juvenile Diabetes Research
Foundation.

“I react when I hear about buying each guest a $50 silver picture frame,” Ms. O’Donnell said. “It shocks me. That wasn’t possible for us — and it’s ridiculous.
“It’s an important day, but it’s not the only day,” she added emphatically.
Ms. O’Donnell’s views seem to be catching on. Whether in reaction to the opulence of the late 1990s or the devastation of Sept. 11, 2001, and its aftermath, celebrating with a social conscience is gaining a foothold in the magical world of weddings.
The I Do Foundation was founded in February 2002 by four community development specialists in their 20s who wanted to promote the concept of philanthropy among young couples at a time in their lives when generosity tends to abound.
The approximately 2.4 million couples who marry in the United States each year generate $70 billion in retail sales, according to the Web site www.theknot.com. The average wedding costs $22,000, Conde Naste Bridal Group states.
“There is this growing fairy tale culture around weddings,” said Bethany Robertson, executive director of the I Do Foundation. “We know a lot of people who want this wonderful celebration, but we saw people who wanted to do something more meaningful than just the accumulation of gifts.
“When we talk to our couples, they say, `What’s important is having our friends and family there,’ ” she said. “I think there is a sense of opportunity. If you are spending all this money, it’s great to give some of it back.”
Diane Sollee, who is director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education, predicted the trend will grow.
“These people are trying to make marriage more meaningful,” she said. “They may also be frightened by the 50 percent divorce rate. It’s almost like an offering to the gods.”
Along with I Do’s Web site, several other Internet locations urge couples to plan festivities that incorporate a philanthropic dimension. For instance, www.marriedforgood.com suggests holding a reception where the usage fee will benefit the organization, such as a historic home, museum or local park. Leftover food could be donated to a food bank, or the bride could skip a bridal shower and “ask your pals to join you instead for an afternoon of volunteer work.”
Another site, www.organicweddings.com, advocates planning “a natural, healthy” wedding, with a gown made of natural fibers, flowers grown without pesticides and invitations printed on 100 percent recycled paper.
Kimberly Harter, who is in her final year at University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, said she has always been uneasy about lavish weddings. That feeling deepened recently when Ms. Harter, 27, and her fiance, Michael Morton, 28, a computer programmer, attended the nuptials of friends, both medical students, in Pennsylvania.
The 250 guests were treated to tiny bottles of champagne attached to name tags. The bride and groom set up an ornate white bird cage in which guests could leave envelopes containing cash or checks. Nearby was a long table laden with gifts.
At one point, the wedding announcer invited guests to dance with either the bride or groom — for $1 a turn. “Come on, they have to pay off their medical school bills!” the announcer boomed.
“Both Mike and I believe a wedding is not about an extravaganza,” Ms. Harter stated.
In planning their own wedding, which will take place Sept. 23, Ms. Harter and Mr. Morton first considered using the back yard of her parents’ Lexington home. They settled on Stonehurst, a 130-acre rustic park in Waltham.
Beyond that, they have minimized the cost at every turn. They are making up their own invitations, and two friends who are good with cameras will take the photographs. Ms. Harter’s sister is growing the flowers in her garden in Bolton. A family friend who is a caterer will prepare the buffet dinner for 140 guests.
“We had thought of asking friends and family to make something small for dessert,” Ms. Harter said, laughing. “The caterer said, `A cake is a must.’ ”
When friends told Ms. Harter and Mr. Morton about the I Do Foundation, they immediately warmed to the idea. Their guests can make contributions to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, and, as was the case with Ms. O’Donnell and Mr. Weyant, a portion of some of the gift purchases will go to charity.
“This is a small way to give back, but I don’t even think it’s enough,” Ms. Harter said. “Mike and I have talked about matching what comes in.”