EAST COBB — While the cost of a wedding can sometimes be enough to make a down payment on a home, military and first responder brides-to-be in Georgia got a big break in their budgets Friday.

The women received free wedding dresses from Bel Fiore Bridal Boutique in east Cobb. The store partnered with the nonprofit organization Brides Across America to make the Fourth of July holiday extra special for these brides-to-be.

Johnna Rich lives in Smyrna and has served in the Army National Guard for seven years. Her grandfather was a lieutenant colonel in the Army and she decided to follow in his footsteps.

“I really enjoy the military. I joined because I didn’t know if I wanted to go to college. I didn’t know what degree I wanted, but this was a fit for me,” she said. “My friend actually told me about this and you can’t beat a free wedding dress.”

Rich and her friend, Ashley Pope, sat talking on a shaded bench outside the shop where snacks and drinks were available. She had a longer wait ahead of her since she was one of the last on the list. Anyone who didn’t sign up in advance was taken first come, first serve.

“I think they had a sign-up sheet last night, but it was the Fourth of July and I was having too much fun to come over here,” she said laughing.

According to Brides Across America, a wedding dress and accessories run an average of $3,000. Operation Wedding Gown “assists with minimizing wedding-related financial stress for our heroes.” Over the past 11 years, it has given away 24,000 gowns.

Boutique manager Renee Goodman said this is her second time running a Brides Across America event. When she took over the store from the previous owner, who had hosted it for the past eight years, she took on the event as well.

“We feel like we’ve stepped it up a couple levels from what other salons are doing. Where the free gowns come from is always the big question. What is the quality of the gowns? Where do they come from?” Goodman said, adding that Brides Across America sends whatever sizes and styles they don’t already have in the store. Mostly, however, Bel Fiore uses dresses that have never left the shop, Goodman said.

“We have been able to utilize our sample turnover to provide dresses that have barely been tried on by a few brides, never worn out of the store, never altered, never seen an aisle. Only a couple seasons old instead of five or six years old,” Goodman said.

This year’s event had 25 brides signed up and 150 dresses available, Goodman said. Within the first hour of the event, consultants had already matched 10 brides-to-be with a free dress of their choice.

Goodman said she felt better prepared this year, having one event under her belt already.

“Last year, we went through 30 brides in three hours. First responder and military wives are very efficient.”

Sisters Ashley and Alexis Morris of Columbus shared a dressing room. They also share careers in the U.S. Army as well as the same engagement period. When Cathy Crook, an independent sales director for Mary Kay who partnered with the event, asked if they were having a double wedding, their mother responded, “I wish.”

So many members of their family and the future in-laws’ families are in the military, the November and March weddings are proving difficult to coordinate.

Lois Shantel Strong is originally from Washington in Wilkes County but now resides in Forsyth County, working as a police officer for the Alpharetta Police Department. Her fiance is a Forsyth County officer, and the two met when they were both employed as police officers for the city of Atlanta.

She and her fiance weren’t even sure they were going to have a traditional wedding ceremony until they learned about this event. She worked Alpharetta’s Fourth of July festivities Thursday night and was supposed to work Friday, but was grateful she was given the time off to attend the giveaway.

“We were watching the news,” Strong said. “We were talking about how expensive a wedding is. We just bought a house and were thinking about just putting the money into the yard and having a few people over.”

Many of the dress recipients came from out of state, including Florida, South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi. Goodman told one future bride, who called to say her flight had been delayed, not to worry as they were open until 6 p.m.

Laura Sellinger, an Air Force veteran who suffered a traumatic brain injury when an IED exploded in Iraq, did a little dance as she declared she had found her dress, making the trip from Florida well worth it. She and her fiance, also a veteran, will wed Aug. 10.

In an emotional moment, Chelsea Jones, an Army first responder from Griffin, and her mom, Jennifer, teared up when they agreed she had found the perfect dress.

“You always see people crying on TV,” she joked while blotting her eyes with a tissue.

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