Dressed in tulle, lace and rhinestones, Mariama Runcie decided it was time to FaceTime her mom.

"Did you hear what she said?” Runcie said with a smile, ready to echo her mother's words to a worker at the Brides Across America shop in Andover. "She said, ‘I say yes to that dress.'''

Living halfway across the country from her family and her wedding venue in Chicago, Runcie, a medical doctor with a home in Cambridge, has struggled to plan her wedding in the middle of  the pandemic. Thankfully, finding the perfect wedding dress was an easier task for the emergency room resident doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women's Hospital. She discovered that the Andover-based nonprofit Brides Across America expanded its program to give dresses to front-line pandemic healthcare workers.

“I’m still a resident (doctor), so I’ve made a lot of sacrifices to save to have a wedding at all,” said Runcie, referring to the fact that doctors don't make big money at the start of their careers.

"It’s so nice to have someone take care of you,'' she said of Brides Across America, "especially when you are serving people and working in service every day.”

When Runcie became an emergency room doctor, she expected the craziness that typically comes with the job. For nearly the past year, however, the emergency rooms where she works have been far more hectic than normal due to the pandemic. The two weeks at the start of the pandemic set the pace: She worked 95 hours in each of those weeks.

Heidi Janson, founder of Brides Across America, said it made perfect sense to her organization to provide healthcare workers like Runcie with free wedding dresses.

“We felt it really lined up with our mission to help those healthcare workers on the front lines because they are putting their lives on the line, too, just like military and first responders,” Janson said.

In 2008, Jansen created the Brides Across America organization to help military brides, many of whom served in the Middle East. After the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, she began offering free wedding dresses to first responders as well.

The store sets aside two days per month for an Operation Wedding Gown event where dresses are given away to eligible brides-to-be. The store also works with other bridal shops across the country to provide give-aways to brides who cannot travel to the Andover store.

Brides Across America has helped many local brides, particularly those who work at Massachusetts General Hospital. Runcie spread the good news to her coworker Dr. Stephanie Ludy of Boston.

“It was an amazing experience,” Ludy said when picking out her dress.

The pandemic has put a heavier-than-normal financial strain on brides-to-be, Jansen said. Weddings were expensive enough before the pandemic, but now some brides have to re-plan their big days and often incur extra expenses because of the health crisis.

For her September wedding, Runcie adjusted to COVID-19 rules by booking a larger space than she originally picked — and she also added an outdoor option. She's waiting to see if she can acquire rapid COVID-19 tests so guests can feel safer. The dress provided by Brides Across America brought her a huge relief, she said.

The Andover store also sells dresses to the public, with 100% of the proceeds going to the nonprofit so brides who shop there know they are helping other brides, Jansen said. This month, the store is selling all wedding gowns for $699. The store also has a special Mother of the Bride Friday, during which moms' dresses are sold for $129.



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