Wedding wishes

Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune

Angela, 43, and Brad Andrews, 42, show off their wedding photo at their home in Crown Point, Ind. They were married Dec. 11, 2018, with help of Wish Upon A Wedding, a Midwest-based nonprofit organization granting weddings and vow renewals to couples facing serious illness or a life-altering circumstance.

Angela Dugan and Brad Andrews have known each other since they were children, growing up as neighbors in Crown Point, Ind.

But then they both moved away and got married to other people. They eventually returned to the area as single adults. One day, Dugan went to visit Andrews’ mom; she and Andrews sat and chatted all night and haven’t been apart since. Within months of reconnecting, they were engaged in 2017.

However, amid the romance, Dugan was battling a very aggressive type of ovarian cancer. When she was diagnosed in 2012, the prognosis was a 15 percent survival rate within the first year. Of those who survive the first year, 15 percent survive five years.

She endured bouts of radiation and chemotherapy and did whatever the medical professionals told her to do to get well. And after a year, she was told there was “no evidence of disease.”

“I have a very rare, aggressive ovarian cancer,” she said. “I survived my first year and had just made five years and two weeks, and it came back. The ovarian cancer metastasized to my spleen. When we first got engaged, we talked about wanting a dream wedding. We just wanted something to celebrate our lives together and our family. So when I got sick again, I thought there is no way that I can do a wedding. We’re just going to have to go to the justice of the peace. When I got out of bed, it was a good day just to brush my teeth.”

When someone in one of her Facebook support groups recommended she reach out to the nonprofit Wish Upon a Wedding to help make her third wedding (Andrews’ second) a reality, she applied and won a wedding at no cost to her or her fiancé.

Wish Upon a Wedding grants weddings and vow renewals to couples facing serious illness or life-altering health circumstances. The volunteer organization relies on donations by individuals and wedding professionals to make dreams come true for couples who are dealing with the financial and emotional costs of sickness. The organization was founded in San Jose, Calif., in 2009 by longtime party and event planner Liz Guthrie. After she inspired fellow businesses and wedding industry professionals to donate their money and services to host a free wedding to a deserving couple in need in San Francisco (Vanessa and Mike Hawkins), Wish Upon a Wedding was formed.

Wish Upon a Wedding’s criteria are simple: One person in the couple must be diagnosed with a terminal illness with a prognosis of less than five years or serious life-altering circumstances (the organization can move even more quickly if the person has a prognosis of less than six months to live); both partners must be U.S. citizens and at least 18; applications must be filled out by the couple or a full-time caretaker/hospice worker. Couples are chosen by Wish Upon a Wedding’s board of directors, headquartered in Chicago.

The organization receives about 15 applications per month, and after the board chooses the couples, Guthrie said, task forces of volunteers from local committees throughout the country plan the festivities. Guthrie said there are hundreds of wish granters across the country ready to participate. Weddings and vow renewals can take place Sunday through Thursday, and all costs are covered for a guest list of up to 50 people. Included are the wedding planner, venue, catering, photographer, videographer, cake, officiant, florist, stationery, music, hair and makeup for the bride, and transportation for the bride and groom. The wedding date must be no more than a year after the application.

“I spent a year working on this project with different vendors in the Bay Area in 2010, and we could only give it to one couple,” Guthrie, a Santa Cruz resident, said. “I thought that’s silly, we have all these people who want to donate their products and services, and are eager to do it. So I decided that I’m going to start this nonprofit, and that way we can take this idea of the wedding industry donating their products and services to multiple couples across the country. It’s been going strong since the beginning, which is amazing and something that I didn’t expect, but it’s wonderful.”

Angela Dugan was diagnosed with the recurrence in July 2018, and by October, she and Brad Andrews had had their Wish Upon a Wedding application approved and were planning their wedding. They would meet their wedding planner, Lauren Knuepfer Rozum of LK Events, in Chicago where Dugan was receiving her treatments. The couple wed Dec. 11, 2018, at Chicago’s Revel Motor Row; her colors were navy blue and yellow.

“When the organization called me and said, ‘We’re going to do everything you’ve ever wanted,’ I was so excited,” Dugan said. “The wedding planner asked: What kind of a plan do you have? And every day, I was getting my energy taken away, slowly. I was like: I’m not a good creative person. Can you help me? And every step of the way, she exceeded anything I could possibly imagine. They took care of every detail, every step of the way. When I walked into the event, I was just awestruck.”

She said she felt like a princess, even though she was bald. Donning a wedding dress bought by her sisters and best friends, she had “a celebration of life, a celebration of our love, a celebration of our family.”

She’s doing well now and has no evidence of disease. “Right now, I’m trying to live my normal life and take it day by day — good days, bad days,” she said.

The Andrewses are among more than 100 couples who are a part of the Wish Upon a Wedding family. They join the Hawkinses, a military family who married in San Francisco on May 14, 2010. Vanessa Hawkins, 35, a freelance marketer with family ties to Oshkosh, Wis., was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2007. A nurse put her name in the running for the wedding giveaway while her fiancé was deployed overseas. Cancer-free for almost three years now, Hawkins still looks back at her wedding and said it was exactly what she wanted and nothing that she could have ever afforded.

“The way that I was treated, you would have thought I’d paid them thousands and thousands of dollars. It was above and beyond, and being long distance too — that’s hard,” Hawkins said.

The organization will celebrate its 10th anniversary by helping its 150th couple this month — a couple from Nashville, Tennessee, who will be wed Dec. 4 and highlighted at the group’s annual fundraising gala Monday evening in Chicago.

“I’ve seen a movement the last few years across the country of people wanting to give back and feeling it’s our responsibility to give back to the communities that help us thrive,” Guthrie said. “If you can give, then I do feel it’s your responsibility to step up and at least do something when and where you can.”

On rare occasions, the group will make an exception for a child who is sick who wants to see his or her parents get married. She says she cries a lot doing what she does, but it’s “a good, happy cry.”

“To know that we’re able to help someone have their dream come true … we believe no one should be denied their chance to marry the one that they love, so we do what we can,” Guthrie said.