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Calgary drop-in centre helps make wedding dreams a reality for couples down on their luck

Dolly Sutherland and Mark Wetter are officially announced as husband and wife at Scarboro United Church in Calgary, Alberta on Thursday.

Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

On the surface, this looks like a traditional wedding.

A happy bride in a white gown. A flower girl dropping rose petals along the aisle. A suited groom, perhaps a little anxious, as he walks by those gathered inside a pretty little church.

But this union is anything but conventional. It's an entire community's pay-it-forward response to woman's single Christmas wish – a justice of the peace to marry her to her long-time partner.

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"I feel marvellous," said Dolly Sutherland, who married her fiancé, Mark Wetter, in a charming ceremony at Scarboro United Church in Calgary on Thursday afternoon. "I feel like a little princess, to tell you the truth."

The 54-year-old woman posted her unusual request on the Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre's annual Christmas Wish List, which has made a tradition of linking donors with homeless men and women who put holiday dreams online. The newlyweds, who first met 14 years ago, had in recent years fallen on hard times, facing issues of addiction and homelessness. Yet they stuck together through it all and wanted nothing more than to be married.

Inspired by a similar initiative in Vancouver, the drop-in centre has been playing Santa since 2006 by allowing hundreds of those who are disenfranchised or down on their luck to share their stories with potential sponsors in what can be a lonely time of year.

"The feedback we get is so powerful," said Jordan Hamilton, a spokesman with the drop-in centre. "People usually want small but meaningful gifts such as winter clothing and transit packs. Small gifts like these can be life-saving. But we want to do far more than just keep people alive. We want to share joy."

When Ms. Sutherland wrote that she was adopted as a little girl, dropped off as a teenager at a women's shelter and battled with drugs and alcohol – but that she had rehabilitated herself "to become a better role model for [her] children and grandchildren" – Nichole Barwise was touched.

Ms. Barwise, who was laid off this year but recently found a job as a clerk at an investment banking firm, has donated to the wish list for the past three years and wanted to help again even though money was tight.

"It got my heart," she said of Ms. Sutherland's gift request. "So many people on there, they want laptops or they want a video game or a night in a nice hotel. This couple, they just wanted to get married. I thought it was so amazing."

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When she contacted the registry to pay the $71.50 fee for their marriage licence, she encountered another inspired soul. Registry worker Narmeen Faraj, who came to Canada 10 years ago from northern Iraq, decided she would cover the cost of the licence, and as wedding gifts, pay another $38.64 for the marriage certificate and give the newlyweds a romantic dinner at a restaurant.

"I know when you suffer and you need help," said the single mother of two boys. "And this country gave me a lot, so it's time to give some back."

Ms. Faraj's co-workers also got involved. One loaned the bride her own recently worn wedding dress. Another offered jewellery. Itinerant Flowers Design Ltd. jumped in with a floral contribution. Troy Shoppe Jewellers offered two silver wedding bands, valued at a few hundred dollars, which was the best that could be found and sized amid the Christmas rush. An organist and cellist arrived, as did a wedding cake and grub for a reception. (As for Ms. Barwise, she would end up giving her used laptop computer to another recipient on the wish list.)

Why get involved? "We really need some good news," said Rev. Lee Spice, who officiated the ceremony. "We can feel really helpless about things happening in the world. … But the world changes with one act of kindness at a time."

It all came together in a week. Mr. Wetter, 43, starts a construction job in the new year, but, still living in a shelter, he's not yet ready to move into his wife's apartment. They know, better than most, the meaning of the vows they just confirmed: for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer.

After the couple was introduced as man and wife, Mrs. Wetter joyfully pumped her fists.

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"It's really overwhelming," an emotional Mr. Wetter said after the ceremony. "What a road to go down, and it's not over yet, but this is a huge, huge step."

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About the Author
Dawn Walton

Dawn Walton has been based in Calgary for The Globe and Mail since 2000. Before leaving Toronto to head West, she won a National Newspaper Award and was twice nominated for the Michener Award for her work with the Report on Business. More


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