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Tough economic times bring out the tightwad in all of us, and nowhere is that more true than in the area of charitable giving. After all, who can pony up donations to worthy causes when our own profit margins are in jeopardy? Surprisingly, four local small business owners bucked that trend with a giveaway wedding project that not only changed a young couple’s lives, but also changed their own.

Like many good ideas, Reason to Give started small. It began in the summer of 2009 when Nicole Mitsakis, owner of Bee Custom Designs in Middleton, got together with Heidi Nicholson and Lisa Almeida, owners of Bella Sera Bridal in Danvers, and Natasha Bansfield, owner of Peabody’s Natasha Bansfield Events, to network. What started out as a routine business meeting soon turned into something else, as the four women realized they shared a common urge: to give back to the community that had supported them so generously over the years.

“I’m a one-woman operation, and most of my business is word of mouth,” says Mitsakis. “I like to donate because it is a way to help people, but it is also good advertising,” she says. As it turned out, the other women felt the same way, but during the meeting it quickly became apparent that self-promotion took a back seat to the simple desire to do something nice for people who were down on their luck. “I wondered if it would be feasible to do a wedding like the ones put on by the ‘Today’ show, and everyone thought it was an awesome idea,” she said.

The women came up with a name—Reason to Give—and Mitsakis set about creating a logo. They also realized that other local vendors might want to get involved. “We put together a list of vendors we thought might be interested, and it’s humbling how many people didn’t hesitate to donate their time,” said Nicholson, who entered the project with co-owner Almeida.

In addition to the planning services, invitations, photography, music, flowers, and wedding cake, vendors donated the all-important bridal gown, as well as tuxedos and dresses for the wedding party. Less obvious donations included training sessions, teeth whitening, massage services, lingerie, makeup, and hair.

The next step was to find a deserving couple. “Natasha [Bansfield] created a website, which was the landing point for the project, and we did a lot of small marketing,” said Almeida. The women distributed flyers, called magazines, and created a blog, but overall, she admits they didn’t get a lot of press.

“None of us were web designers,” laughs Bansfield, who learned the process of creating the website ( simply by doing it. At one point, Bansfield even called a local radio station to try to get some airtime for the project, but she said she was cut off mid-sentence by the DJs, who then went on to make fun of her on the air. “They said I needed to pay for advertising, and I do see their point, but we were all doing this for free,” she said. The good news is that the 10 to 15 seconds she was on the air spurred 30 couples to apply for the contest.

That experience taught the women about the power of the media. “It’s tough when it’s a grassroots effort and you’re putting signs up at Starbucks and the local library,” Bansfield said. “Next time, if we had more money or a grant, we’d use publications and the radio to get the word out.”

The women understood the importance of nailing down a venue, and they were thrilled when Groveland Fairways stepped up as a sponsor, along with Cloverleaf Catering, which supplied the menu.

The contest began November 1, 2009, with couples encouraged to apply online and tell their stories and, most importantly, why they thought they deserved a free wedding. As the wedding had a set date of November 6, 2010, some couples were eliminated right away. But as they went through the applicants, some stories stood out, says Almeida, and when the applicant pool was down to three couples, the women interviewed each one.

One young couple, Ashley Grimes and Jay LaValley of Amesbury, emerged as the clear winner. “Jay and I have been together since high school, said Ashley, “and last July he proposed and we started to plan our wedding together.” But just a few months later, Jay collapsed, and doctors found a tumor on his brain. Surgery and radiation followed, and although he is now doing well, Ashley explains that Jay’s recovery process and mounting medical debts put the couple’s dreams of a wedding on hold indefinitely.

During this bleak period, Ashley came across the Reason to Give website and filled out the application, even though she thought it was “a shot in the dark.” Even when she learned that she and Jay were among the finalists, the whole thing seemed “too good to be true.”

“[Reason to Give organizers] let them know Ed McMahon-style,” said Gregory Costa-Saint John, owner of Flou(-e)r Specialty Floral Events. Ashley and Jay were told the good news on Valentine’s Day. “We showed up in a limo, and I gave her a bouquet,” he said, adding that he didn’t think twice about supplying all of the flowers for the wedding.

Lisa and Jim Engelbrecht of Creative Sparks Imagery, who volunteered their photography services for the event, were on hand during the “ambush surprise,” and chronicled Ashley’s and Jay’s journey from that moment on. “We have photos of Ashley in tears hugging Heidi and Lisa on the front steps, then the engagement photos and the wedding,” Lisa Engelbrecht says. “We’ll give them a beautiful 20-page album, and the album company is donating that cost.”

As excited as Ashley was about her dream wedding, the impact of winning the contest turned out to signal a turning point in their lives that went far beyond the material trappings of the event. “A year ago was a dark time in our lives, and the people at Reason to Give have been so amazing,” she says. “When Jay got sick, I knew it would be far in the future before we could afford to live on our own. Reason to Give allowed me to dream about those things again.”

The sponsors who worked with Ashley and Jay all said that they were impressed by the love and respect the young couple have for each other and how truly grateful they were for everything the vendors donated in their honor.

“I wasn’t a little girl who dreamed of a big wedding,” Ashley says. “I knew Jay would be the perfect part of our wedding, and everything else would be icing on the cake.” Her attitude, so different from the stereotypical “bridezilla” of today, only encouraged the vendors to give even more.

When the big day finally arrived, the vendors once again stepped up. “The DJ came in a suit, the limo driver was in a tuxedo, and everyone was top notch,” says Bansfield. “No one sent their B team.” There were 75 guests, and Bansfield’s only regret is that there wasn’t room for all the vendors to attend.

Inspired by the success of the wedding, which was covered by Channel 7 news, the group hopes to work on other projects in the future: perhaps a prom for a less-fortunate high school or a wedding anniversary celebration for a worthy couple. “We just hope that by putting something positive out there in this economy, people will take that idea and sprinkle it around,” Bansfield says.

And as for Ashley, “during Jay’s treatment, everyone felt sorry for us,” she said. “Planning our wedding gave us something to look forward to. Reason to Give changed the conversation.”